Petty Treason: A Sarah Tolerance Mystery

Petty Treason - Madeleine E. Robins 3.5-4+ starsThese books are difficult for me to rate, because while they're well-written, they're gritty and harsh - not at all what one might expect from a Regency novel. They remind me a bit of Jennifer Ashley's Captain Lacey mysteries - they expose the underbelly of London Society. What happens to gently bred ladies who are compromised or otherwise ruin their reputation? Regency romance novels would have us believe that the Rake always ends up on love with the Lady and marries her. But that's not so.For the Fallen (as they're termed), there are few options. Generally, they're family throws them out and disowns them, leaving them to become mistresses or whores; seamstress work or other possible non-sex work simply doesn't pay the bills. And these women are subject to whatever rough treatment men - or women - chose to deal out to them. They have no money, no family, no position, and no reputation.Sarah Brereston fell in love with her brother's fencing master, Connor, and ran away (the original meaning of the word 'elope') with him to France. Because he was Catholic and she Protestant, they could never agree on how to marry. Their age difference was also a factor - she was barely 17 when she eloped with the 30+ man. When Connor died, Sarah had nowhere to go; at the time, they were living near Belgium, and the Pennisular Wars (or some such) threatened the small village in which she lived. Sarah returned to England, but penniless and alone.Sarah took on a new last name, as most Fallen did; the last name suggested something about the woman and her "profession". Sarah took the last name of Tolerance, which presumably is not about her profession, but more about her philosophy. As Sarah Tolerance, she's an "inquiry agent": basically a private investigator. She's done everything from locate lost trinkets to following errant husbands and documenting their unfaithfulness to checking out prospective suitors. In the first book, Sarah was hired to locate a fan given to a Fallen woman by an errant lord. The fan was supposed to be the Key to a Great Scandal that could bring down the Folles house, specifically the Earl of Versillion - an up-and-coming politician in the House of Lords. But as she pursued the fan, bodies began to pile up, and Sarah uncovered a lot more than she ever knew, including the guilt of the Earl, who murdered a Fallen woman - a whore - who had once been his father's mistress and was, in fact, his own mother.As we learn at the beginning of this book, as painful as it was for her, Sarah not only arrested the Earl, but she testified against him in court. It was her own testimony and evidence that convicted him; being an Earl, however, he didn't hang, but rather he was transported to Australia.The main puzzle in this book is the murder of a French noble man, Etienne d'Aubigny; the Chevalier was murdered in his bed, his skull crushed and his brains dashed out. His brother-in-law is anxious for his sister's security: if someone could enter her house and kill her husband, might they not come back for Mrs. d'Aubigny?As usual, nothing is as it seems. I believe from an early episode in the book, Sarah is supposed to have encountered the Chevalier as the "woman" he was in congress with in the street ran away from him, because he was beating her. The "woman" ran into Sarah, who sheltered her from the brute. The Chevalier insisted that he'd already paid his coin, and he could do as he liked. It took quite a bit of "persuading" and the return of his money to make him walk off.While this man was never given a name, Sarah learns early in her investigations that d'Aubigny was into beatings, which apparently, got him off. He even had his own "tool box" full of implements. But the local bircheries (or flagelleries) wouldn't even take him in - he was too violent for them. He had his own mistress, a "Mrs." Josette Vose, who even came to his house and his bedroom to service him; except they'd been on the outs over money he owed her, and she supposedly was nowhere near his house the night he was murdered.Who murdered the Chevalier d'Aubigny? As Sarah investigates, she finds herself deeper and deeper into this deviant, shadowy world. What role does Camille Touvois play in all of this? Her salon hosts a bevy of poets and artists, but is also a political hot-bed. And Camille is best known for "matching" like with like - knowing who would suit whom and making the introduction. Camille introduced d'Aubigny to Mrs. Vose; later in the story, Sarah witnesses Camille introduce Mrs. Vose to the Duke of Cumberland, who has similar tastes in women as d'Aubigny. Who is the mysterious Mr. Beauville, the only "bosom buddy" of d'Aubigny that Sarah can find; everyone else intensely dislikes the man, even if they do business with him. Did Beauville set the fire in her cottage, intended to kill her? Did Beauville set the footpad on her who gave her a fierce beating and likely meant to kill her? Was Beauville the one who pointed the Watch and Bow Street to the Widow d'Aubigny - the widow that is so sheltered by her staff and seems so helpless and beaten down, Sarah can't possibly believe she murdered her husband.-------------The book is intriguing in that it further delves into the world of the Fallen, and into women's lives for much of Britain's history. The punishment for a man who beat his wife to death might be hanging - might, because it was within a man's right to beat his wife, and unless it could be proved he did it on purpose, the man likely went free. But for a woman to murder her husband was one of the worst possible crimes; the woman was BURNED to death, like a witch.Sarah has to carefully skirt both the world of the Fallen and the world of polite Society, or what passes for it. She has to constantly be on her guard against men who would just as soon rape her or beat her to death as look at her. When she travels about in men's clothing (because it's more conducive to some of her investigations and doesn't hamper her like her skirts do - and she can wear her sword), men and women alike call her an abomination and seriously doubt her character. Her virtue is always in doubt; she's usually taken for a mistress or a whore. While Sarah realizes that her virtue has been compromised, she isn't free with her favors; she might have taken the Earl as a lover, but she wasn't his mistress. And he was only the second man she'd ever been with.It seems as if the author is trying to develop a potential romantic interest for Sarah in Sir Walter Mandiff, one of the magistrates who oversees Bow Street Runners - what passes for law enforcement in this time. Sir Walter and Sarah met in the first book, because the first murder took place in his jurisdiction, and he questioned Sarah and kept a close eye on her. Sir Walter came to regard Sarah as the unique woman that she is, and they seem to have formed a sort of friendship. Where it can go, I don't know. I thought in the previous book that Sir Walter was quite a bit older than Sarah, but I suppose that she doesn't care for that - Connor was several years her senior, as well. It seems an unlikely pairing, but perhaps not. We'll have to see.The "Miss Tolerance" bit I still don't understand... the author insists upon calling her Miss Tolerance most of the time, rather than referring to her as simply "Sarah". I don't understand the distinction or the impression that the author intends by doing this, and it's a bit irritating. We, the readers, KNOW who she is; we (or I) think of her as Sarah.The mystery is good, full of the usual twists, turns, red herrings, witty banter, sword fights, and surprises. Sarah finds her own thinking challenged, especially by Sir Walter, and she ignores his advice, almost to her peril. Sarah also learns that there's more than one intrigue happening in this affair...Supposed to be a third book out, but it's availability is sketchy. But when I can lay hands on it, I'll definitely read it. These books aren't the usual mystery fare, so I wouldn't recommend them across the board; but for those readers who aren't put off by the seedy underworld, including deviant sex, the books are a good read. I should note that there is no "steam" in these books, and the sex acts aren't defined, simply mentioned or implied. It's up to the reader to put the visuals behind the words. So the stories aren't "offensive" in their blatant blow-by-blow accounts of this world; but some might find the ideas and the potential visuals behind the words a bit much for their palettes. Definitely NOT recommended for under 18, IMO.