The Sans Pareil Mystery by Karen Charlton

The Regency world in a parallel universe…

🙂 😐

the sans pareil mysteryRegency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there’s a woman in the building, but when Lavender’s men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It’s not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre…

This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it’s not a mystery as such – the reader learns and understands what’s going on at the same time as the detectives.

I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it’s set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn’t take any more, so skipped ahead to the end… I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.

The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It’s not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn’t believe in Lavender’s character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.

The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I’m guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn’t have happened in this one.

Karen Charlton
Karen Charlton

The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of public kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen’s heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it’s the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!

And, you know, if you’re going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity…

“Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”

Er… three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.

Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic. But it’s probably fine as a light-hearted romance in Regency frocks.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.

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36 thoughts on “The Sans Pareil Mystery by Karen Charlton

  1. I’m with you completely when it comes to authenticity, FictionFan. I really like the sense of being placed authentically in a context when I read historical fiction. And there are dozens of ways, both subtle and overt, in which the author can do that. So I can see why this one didn’t exactly sweep you away, even if the plot was interesting. And the thing is, with today’s technology, it doesn’t take an inordinate amount of effort to make sure that the context feels real. Shame you didn’t like it more, but at least my TBR is safe today… 😉

    • I think that’s what annoys me most, when it’s trivial errors that could be fixed with just a few minutes research. But the bigger ones of just having characters who aren’t right for the time always leaves me wondering why bother putting it in a historical setting at all. A pity, because the plotting was good and the basic writing was fine. Oh, well!

  2. Lovely ripio. Derelict and hoi-polloi made my day for some strange reason. What odd words. Really. Still can’t pronounce them, tho, you know. And I know you do it on purpose!

    Hahaha. About the kissing part. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to fight past a couple…doing that sort of thing. Yucketh!

  3. Great review! I cringe when a 21-century mentality creeps into a story set in the past. As you mentioned, “why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people?” Exactly. I can’t help recalling some of the later adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, where the hair was all wrong and characters did and said things they would not have done or said back in the day.

  4. Was it wrong to enjoy seeing the unhappy face, knowing I was in for a good rip? I believe it set me into a fit vapours. (I’m practicing, FF! I’m going to London this summer for the first time!! What will this desert dweller do?! All the touristy things, I’m afraid. Oh, but so excited!)

    • Ooh, how exciting!! When? And how long for? Let’s see now… a show in the West End, the Tower, Hampton Court, an open top bus tour (unless it’s raining!) and the organised walks are a great way to see the older parts of the city and learn some of the legends – I love the Dickens walks. Hmm… will children be accompanying you? If so, the London Dungeon is a must! (Actually it’s a must for adults too, but don’t tell anyone I said so.) St Paul’s for the Whispering Gallery, the Shard (which is after my time in London but something I’d love to see myself some day), Tate Modern for a bit of a laugh… Ooh, and if you’re there at Wimbledon time, you must stalk Rafa and get me some new pics for the hunks’ gallery!! You’ll love it – it’s a brilliant city. Whatever kind of thing you enjoy, London has it… 😀

      • Oh, thank you, FF! Love the recommendations. I will propose every one of them! I’ve very excited. My husband has been, but the kids and I have never been. I cannot wait! The Dickens walks would be welcome, but I’m not sure my crew would tolerate my literary quest. Maybe I go off and do that, as well as, a bit of Rafa stalking! Thanks again for the wonderful suggestions!

        • They also do ghost walks which the kids might enjoy more, and Ripper walks if you want to be nicely terrified! The guides are usually very good and quite willing to advise whether their tour is suitable for young’uns. And the bus tours are a great thing to do on your first day or so, as they give a really good idea of places you might want to go back and visit at your leisure, and also help orientate you. Have a wonderful time! 😀

          Here’s a blog I follow that you might enjoy. Fran digs out lots of the less well-known treasures and does lots of stuff about the various parks, art galleries and restaurants… http://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/

    • That thought crossed my mind too – and it was a traditionally pubished book, so no excuses. Having said that, it seems to be getting mostly favourable reviews, so there must be a market for it…

      • Well, you can’t always win, right? And then there are books that creep along until someone decides it is the best thing ever. I think that authors should write what they love. Even if it never sells, you have an honest representation of the author.

        • I agree, but I do think they should do basic research and try to get the tone right. I’m not looking for historical fiction to teach me history, but if it feels all wrong, then it destroys my enjoyment. I’m a picky reader, I think it’s fair to say… 😉

  5. Ah, but you should immediately have backed off when the corpse proved to be a beautiful young woman. Sighs. I think the number of times this cliche has been dismembered to death there really can be no more young women of beauty enough in the gene pool to produce any inheritors of those beautiful genes.

    i suspect this won’t be making your best of 2016 lists then, though you could perhaps instigate a best of the worst category whereby the winner is the worst of the worst, so to speak.

    I bet the detective absentmindedly checks something on his smart phone at some point

    • Yes, ’tis something of a cliché indeed! Of course, she had an identical twin (which isn’t clichéd at all, as you know, being used as a plot device in less than three-quarters of all crime fiction). So the gene pool is safe, and given the amount of canoodling, the deceased should be replaced within the next nine months or so, I would think…

      Haha! I really must stop reading contemporary crime – I find I’ve developed a twitch every time I open one. There’s good stuff out there, but it’s getting progressively harder to find.

      Probably, to check if his horse got through its MOT okay…

  6. So I gather you didn’t particularly enjoy this one, right?! HaHa! I love it when you rip one of these novels to shreds, much as Tommy or Tuppence might do. No doubt this one probably wasn’t worth your time — and I’m glad to hear others skip to the end to find out what happened without trudging through all the boring middles!!

    • Oh, Tommy’s much too sweet to do such a thing – he leaves it to us girls! I usually try to stop Tuppence cheiwng my books but she could have had this one… 😉

      Yes, that gained her the extra half star – usually when I abandon a book I’m so fed up I can’t even be bothered checking, so she must have piqued my interest a bit, anyway!

  7. Wow. I’m surprised the editor let so much slide. But very glad to hear you didn’t slog through every page. That can be quite frustrating….(shivers while thinking of a certain bird that shall remain nameless)

    • Haha! At least this one doesn’t have 700 pages! I should really keep a copy of that book in front of me at all times – all other books would automatically gain one star as a result of the comparison…

  8. You know what’s funny is a while back I reviewed a historical romance novel and thought it was all fun and rompy. Then a friend of mine reviewed the same book, and I’m pretty sure she wanted to burn the book for the historical inconsistencies I never even noticed! I felt ashamed that I was so stupid. But…there was funny stuff in the book! And I liked the romance! It wasn’t a bodice ripper; those are notorious for getting it all wrong. Your review reminded me of the situation, and now I’m puzzled. There must be something in the middle, something between “I’m an idiot about history and I suck” and “This book is fun and has a duke who wears an old-timey outfit!”

    • I think it’s more to do with what the reader’s looking for than whether the book is good or bad. Plenty of people – the majority – have given this a positive rating on Amazon and Goodreads. But maybe most of them had read earlier books in the series and knew what to expect. I was fooled by the blurb into thinking this was going to be much more of a crime novel than a romance – and as a romance, I didn’t like the female character! I don’t mind anachronisms if the book is setting out to be a fun romp, but I hate them in anything that’s supposed to be serious.

      Part of the problem is what do star ratings mean? People often think I’m making a quality judgement when in fact my stars only reflect my enjoyment level – of course, sometimes the two things affect each other, but sometimes a book just isn’t to my taste though I can see why other people would like it.

  9. What a shame as this sounded so promising but at least you’ve saved me from the temptation of reading this for myself – the fact that it isn’t historically accurate would have me flinging it across the room (and if that was my kindle I would cry!)

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