The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

the tender herb 2Days of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Murray of Letho is on an extended visit to Italy when his manservant Robbins turns up unexpectedly. Robbins has received a letter from Mary, Murray’s former maid, asking for advice. Mary’s husband has been arrested for murder in Delhi, where his regiment is based, and Mary is convinced of his innocence. When Robbins asks for permission to go to Delhi to help out, Murray decides that he will go along too – partly out of loyalty to Mary, and partly because he is trying to escape from an enthusiastic mother, determined to trap him into marrying her rather dull daughter.

Have you ever had the experience of loving a book all the way through to the last few pages and then suddenly coming upon an ending that changes your entire opinion? I’ve enjoyed all of the Murray of Letho books. Set in early 19th century Scotland, each one has incorporated a decent murder mystery into an excellent account of an aspect of post-Enlightenment society, well researched and well written. This one is set primarily in India, but the India of Empire, so another important aspect of Scottish life at that time, when so many Scots were posted out there as either government officials or soldiers.

As always, Conyngham wears her research lightly – the descriptions of the journey to and then across India are vivid and ring true, but don’t overwhelm the quality of the characterisation, which is perhaps her main strength. The plots are sometimes the weaker part of the books and again that’s the case here – there’s a lot of bumbling around getting nowhere fast, followed by an unnaturally quick denouement. But it’s still strong enough to hold the book together and to give plenty of room for Conyngham to allow her characters to explore this new and rather exotic environment on behalf of the reader. We get a real feel for the difficulties of this huge journey – a long sea voyage followed by weeks of traversing the country on elephant-back with the huge entourage of native servants that was the norm for wealthy travellers in India. And the depiction of Delhi society, as seen through the eyes of the British there, is both interesting and believable.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi - at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.
Red Fort Palace in Delhi – at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

The books fall between ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ – just where I like crime fiction, in fact. The cosier element is around the recurring characters, whom we’ve got to know and care about over the previous books – particularly Murray himself, of course, who’s an intelligent and attractive lead. There’s always a good deal of humour in the books which makes them a particularly enjoyable read, and in this one there’s a lovely romantic sub-plot, as Murray finally meets a young woman who may be his match in every way. The grittier side comes from the murder plot – in this case, the knifing of a clergyman outside the barracks. But it appears that the clergyman, along with many of the other characters, may have had secrets to hide, and there may have been more than one motive for his murder.

So, great descriptions, excellent characterisation, a nice little bit of romance, and a strong enough plot – it was all going so well and heading straight for 5 stars. But – and I accept this is a matter of personal opinion only and annoying since I can’t explain without spoilers – I hated the way it ended, to the extent that I’ve been left unsure as to whether I want to continue with the series now, and that has to be a serious mark against it. All I can say is that everything up to that point had led me to believe it was going to finish one way, which I would have found satisfactory, and then at the last moment the whole thing was turned on its head, and I found the eventual outcome neither desirable nor credible. 4 stars, then, but still with a strong recommendation to read the series, preferably in order from the beginning. And yes, despite my cryptic remarks over the ending of this one, and with just a little hesitation, I’d still recommend it too.

Book 11
Book 11

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Fellowship with Demons (Murray of Letho 5) by Lexie Conyngham

Murder in the capital…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

fellowship with demonsCharles Murray of Letho is back in Edinburgh for this 5th book in Lexie Conyngham’s fine series. Charles is asked by Viscount Melville, one of the most important men in Scotland, to find out if there is something not quite right about the family of Rose Ronaldson, as one of his young relatives is hoping to marry her. Since Melville is one of the most important men in Scotland, this is not a request Charles can refuse. Rose’s brother is about to appear as a witness in what seems like a straightforward murder trial, so Charles attends the proceedings in the hope of scraping an acquaintance. However, Charles has a nose for murder and he suspects there may be more behind this one than comes out in evidence. And when the killer is then murdered himself, Charles’ suspicions are well and truly aroused…

Conyngham writes very well and her characterisation is very strong. Murray is now established as the head of his family and at the age of 26 is thinking it might be time to find a wife. His father’s old friend Alester Blair appears again in this book, likeable and eccentric as ever as he provides advice and assistance to the younger man. And as always we get to see what happens below stairs too, where the butler Robbins is having to cope with the frailties of the elderly housekeeper Mrs Chambers.

edinburgh castleBut what sets Conyngham apart is the authenticity of her depiction of post-Enlightenment Scottish society, and in each book she shows us a different aspect. She mixes historical fact and real people so seamlessly into her fictional stories that it’s impossible to see the join. In this story, we are given an inside picture of the militia stationed in Edinburgh Castle, where French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars are being held. There are shades of Austen, or perhaps Georgette Heyer, as we are shown the officers and young ladies attending balls and concerts, and anxious mothers trying to find suitable husbands for their daughters; but all contrasting with the darker elements of the story – drinking clubs, family secrets and, of course, murder.

This is an excellent and well-plotted addition to the series – I only got to the solution at roughly the same time as Charles. It could be read as a standalone but to get the most out of the characters I’d suggest reading the books in order starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown. The series is as good as any historical crime I’ve read (including Shardlake) and in my opinion deserves a wider readership than it gets. Highly recommended.

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Knowledge of Sins Past (Murray of Letho 2) by Lexie Conyngham

Murder at the castle…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

knowledge of sins pastIt’s not often I read two books by the same author one after the other, but I enjoyed the first in this series Death in a Scarlet Gown so much that I downloaded this one straight away. A good decision, since this one is equally enjoyable.

Set in early 19th century Scotland, Charles Murray has now graduated from St Andrews but, having been cut off by his father, has accepted the job of secretary to Lord Scoggie and tutor to his young sons. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…

Conyngham is very good at scene setting, equally convincing when dealing with the aristocracy at the castle or the fishermen in the village. Her characterisation is particularly good and she handles a large cast well, giving each a distinctive personality and voice. Murray’s position as secretary allows him to be as much at home with the servants as with the family, and his role as tutor to the two young boys gives Conyngham scope to introduce a considerable amount of humour into the story. The murder doesn’t happen till about halfway through the book, giving plenty of time for the reader to speculate about who the victim will be and why. The plot is well worked out and as with all good murder mysteries, the denouement is dramatic.

Because we see Murray developing as the books progress, I would suggest that anyone new to the series should read them in order, although each could certainly also be read as a stand alone. Highly recommended for anyone who likes crime or mystery novels with a historical twist.

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Death in a Scarlet Gown (Murray of Letho 1) by Lexie Conyngham

death in a scarlet gownMurder is academic…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Set in early 19th century Scotland, this very well written murder mystery takes place in the university town of St Andrews. The writer gives a convincing picture of how the students and academics lived and thought in post-Enlightenment society and works the beliefs and attitudes of the time skilfully through the story.

Charles Murray of Letho is an attractive hero. Just about to graduate, he is resisting his father’s attempts to get him to come home and concentrate on learning how to run their estate. When murder is committed, Charles isn’t willing to accept that the murderer might not be found and so sets out to investigate. This incurs his father’s wrath and, with his allowance cut off, Charles is thrown back on his own resources to fund his accommodation and continue with his studies.

St Andrews University
St Andrews University

Overall, I thought this first novel was a very good read. The descriptions of St Andrews and Edinburgh brought the places to life and the characterisation was strong throughout. Conyngham shows the lives of privileged and poor alike and is equally convincing with both. I felt the book lost a bit of momentum in the latter half, when too much time was spent on Charles considering all the various possibilities and motives. But it came together well at the end and overall it achieved a feeling of originality and freshness – not easy in such a crowded field.

There are a further three books to date in the series and in each Conyngham takes a look at a different look at aspects of Scottish society. For me, this one is the weakest in terms of plotting but the setting and historical context make it well worth reading. Although each book can stand alone, Charles’ personality and career progresses in each, so it’s worth reading them in order. Especially since at time of writing this one is available for £0.77 ($1.15 US) on Kindle! Oh, and $0.99 CDN…

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