The Daughters of Gentlemen
The strength, and possibly also the weakness, of this Victorian mystery lies in its intricate plotting. From the unpromising start of a minor puzzle involving the distribution of anti-marriage pamphlets in a private girls’ school, The Daughters of Gentlemen evolves into a complex tale of murder, blackmail, adultery and deception.
This second novel in the Frances Doughty mystery series sees Frances beginning a new life as a private detective in Bayswater, where preparations for the 1880 General Election are underway. The atmosphere of middle- and upper-class life in a genteel London district is well evoked, with less success when it comes to the servants and underclasses, and the plot blends nicely into the atmosphere of electioneering and demands for women’s suffrage.
I had difficulty working my way into this novel because of the low-stakes nature of the initial mystery and some artificial-sounding dialogue near the beginning. The story improves with the first murder (although I was disappointed by the throwaway solution to this particular mystery) and becomes considerably more intriguing as it progresses. Encountering many scenes where the dialogue is lively and natural, I regret the author’s decision to summarize certain key dramas—a suffrage meeting, an inquest and a confession in particular—rather than using dialogue to expand them into a more exciting spectacle.
As often with plot-driven novels, I craved more development of the main characters’ inner lives and relationships. This was particularly true with regard to the large cast of helpers, antagonists and informers whose purpose seems primarily that of providing information.