24 February 2011

Silent in the Grave (Deanna Raybourn)

One thing I'm learning for myself about the romance genre--which any frequent reader will greet with DERR--is that it's huge, encompassing many historical and alternate-historical periods and settings, levels of explicitness from hand-holding to threesomes and moresomes, divergent writing styles. The throughline, as far as I can see? People fall in love. In other words, the romance "genre" is really most of the stories ever told, filmed, or written. (The others? Probably war stories.)

I started thinking about this whilst reading Deanna Raybourn's compelling and well-written Silent in the Grave--recc'd to me on Twitter by the lovely Sarah Rettger--and wondering, "OK, why is this a romance?" It has the trappings I've grown to love about historicals: faithfully detailed fashions, vocab, and manners (down to uncomfortable class and ethnic distinctions); a heroine who doesn't fit into her society, and a plausible explanation for same (Lady Julia Grey was raised by her crazy family and a succession of Radical tutors); a broody, prickly hero for verbal sparring and unbidden sparks. Lady Julia is certainly attracted to Nicholas Brisbane, a private inquiry agent hired by her late husband, and there's a good ol' Crushing Kiss 2/3rds of the way through; as the first in a series, I think the romantic arc will play out over multiple books, which could be very gratifying (and again, as a measure of how much I enjoyed the book, I am TOTES reading the rest...at...some...point...TOO MANY BOOKS). Still, the driving plot of the novel is not the attraction but a mystery, a very good one. The library I got it from emblazoned "MYSTERY" on the spine...so which is it? Mysterious romance or romantic mystery? While I'm tempted to just say, "Ehn, who cares? Good book," in the reality of publishing and bookselling, what "genre" a book is relegated to is vitally important for reviews, audience, sales, even cover art. (Read Lionel Shriver's wonderful essay on the ladylike covers for her brutal novels.) Romance is an almost exclusively female genre, making it easy to dismiss; mystery, on the other hand, is in my selling experience fairly equally split, though as another huge genre, there are pockets that are more stereotypically feminine or masculine (series set in yarn shops--yes, there's more than one--vs. geopolitical thrillers, e.g.). Then again, a depressing number of men aren't that interested in reading anything with a female protagonist, so shelving this particular title in mystery might not widen its gender audience. Then again again, plenty of women turn up their noses at romance, and I'd hate for them to miss books like this.

Great first lines: "To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."

Following her husband's death, ostensibly the result of a heart complaint that's prematurely killed men in his family for generations, Lady Julia is appalled by Brisbane's revelation that he'd been hired by a terrified Edward over poison-pen letters, and his suggestion that the death might not have been natural. She throws him out. Then, a year later, while clearing out Edward's study, she finds one of the notes...and the two embark upon an investigation frustrated by the length of time that's passed. It's wonderfully full of danger and dark secrets, as well as Lady Julia's gradual embrace of her widowhood as freeing--an excuse to explore the unconventional and forge her own path--and a satisfying, surprising ending. (For me, the #1 test of a mystery's success.)

Inspired by this reading, I'm thinking of doing a Mystery March to follow my Romance February. Recommendations, of course, accepted!


  1. I had a similar problem of shelving in the video store. Most often, the problem was that "good" horror movies would tend to have to go under thrillers (e.g. The Silence Of The Lambs; Peeping Tom).

    I ended up valuing accuracy over navigability, and that's why my video store closed.

  2. Shelving is rough. For a while at WORD we had a section called "Island of Misfit Books," but only we booksellers knew what was in it, so it didn't sell particularly well.

    That's one HUGE advantage that online selling and ebooks have over physical stock.

  3. Romance Writers of America considers Deanna Raybourn's books "Novels With Strong Romantic Elements"--that is, not exactly a romance, probably because the HEA isn't achieved within one single novel. Borders and our public library both put them under mystery--because that's the aspect of the plot that IS resolved within one book. Anyway, glad you liked it!

    I've seen agents and editors wonder where books will "fit"--and if the answer's not clear, that can make even a zomg awesome book a very difficult sell. (Though I admit, I'd love browsing through the "Island of Misfit Books.")

  4. Glad you liked Lady Julia! (And therefore, glad my book recommendation skills are intact.)

    My aunt introduced me to the series a few years back, and also to Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily Ashton books at the same time. And she wanted to know why these basically identical premises got such different treatment from the publishers.

    That was a fun one, trying to explain why Harlequin packaged their version as a mass market with romance/mystery BISAC codes, while William Morrow did a hardcover --> trade paper version, with a straight-up historical fiction cover. Especially since I'm not privy to the inner workings of either house.

  5. For mysteries I like Dorothy Sayers. They're literary and also (after the first few) have plenty of romance in them too.

  6. Dorothy Sayers is one of my absolute favorites! Should go on a binge again sometime.

  7. Hooray! I think I have them all but there are a couple in the middle I still haven't read.


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