Book Review: India Black and the Widow of Windsor

India Black and the Widow of Windsorby Carol K. CarrBerkley, 2011I would have thought even so resourceful an author as Carol Carr might have trouble surpassing the wit, pace, and sheer joyful bounce of her debut mystery novel India Black, but in her follow-up, India Black and the Widow of Windsor, she does so easily. Buoyed by the strongly favorable reader reaction to the first book, this second one received much wider distribution in America's bookstores, with the probable result that many mystery fans will encounter the second book before they've ever heard of the first one. Those fans need not deny themselves a little rainy-day instant gratification: Carr does a superb job of making this book a complete unit unto itself, rather than a half-complete sequel relying on its predecessor.In fact, Carr does just about everything here superbly - it's difficult almost past reckoning to believe these are her first two books. The star of what I hope will be a very long series is India Black, beautiful young London madam who's accidentally drawn into the world of 19th century British politics and espionage and (much to her own surprise, one senses) begins to like it. Her 'handler' is the enigmatic Mr. French, and their protector and benefactor is none other than the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and in this latest adventure, the goal is simple: save the Queen.Queen Victoria, that is, who's received an otherworldly injunction from her dead husband Prince Albert during a séance: he pleads with her to spend Christmas at their Scottish estate of Balmoral, swearing to be with her there in spirit. The British government is worried that the séance might be part of a plot by ardent Scottish nationalists to assassinate the Queen while she's relaxing in the highlands, and so India Black is enlisted to go undercover as a lady's maid to an elderly noblewoman also staying at Balmoral - a post that has its own hazards:

The marchioness's breakfast arrived, and I helped her sit upright long enough to fork in a wagonload of deviled kidneys and toast, and by the time she'd finished and I'd given her a sponge bath (resolving to mention to French in the future that while I might be willing to shoot a Cossack guard or two, I was disinclined to bathe flabby members of the aristocracy), it was time to drape my charge in a clean costume for luncheon.

The hints of Flashman are obviously intentional there and throughout this juicy snack of a book (although India is a better shot than Flashy, and more honest, and braver, and smarter), whose undercurrents ripple with laughter even in the most tense moments. India Black is a knowing and insightful narrator who leads us deeper and deeper into the bizarrely repressed world Victoria has created for herself at Balmoral, complete with incongruous Indian servants and loutish Scotsmen - including the infamous John Brown. But India is equal parts pragmatist and egotist, and Carr frequently invites us to chuckle at her in addition to with her, as in the scene - one of many - in which she's driven to distraction by 'Bertie,' Prince Edward, Victoria's heir apparent:

"Curse it," I said, expelling a breath of relief. "That man is a menace. I can't seem to go anywhere without running into him. If I disappear, look in Bertie's room. He's likely to have me stuffed in his wardrobe." I smoothed my apron modestly. "Of course, if I weren't such a deuced good-looking woman, I wouldn't have such trouble."

Carr works in plenty of social commentary, a good deal of which centers on women's issues - natural enough in a novel where a brothel keeper is striving to save a queen from what could very well be a female assassin. India has little patience for the staid patriarchy that exists everywhere outside the Queen's immediate circle:

... men are free to impose their will on women, while women are denounced as sluts and bobtails for submitting to it. Give me the old-fashioned exchange of goods and services any day; there's no disgrace in conducting a business transaction among consenting men and women

But such elements are never meant to distract from the fizz and pop of the main plot, which Carr builds with assurance right up to the book's climactic sword-fight and accompanying plot revelations. I'll reveal no details, but readers seeing the surname "MacGhillechoinnich" in the closing chapters might guess that those Scottish nationalists are indeed at work among us.Fans of historical murder mysteries should rejoice at the appearance of a second India Black adventure and the prospect of more - the madam comes highly recommended.