Much of Robins story centers on the fate of Fallen Women of good families. As her Fallen Woman character Sarah Tolerance proclaims: Society offers a woman like myself very hard choices. Some become whores, some madams or hatmakers. I became an investigative agent. Sarahs aunt, Mrs. Brereton, manages a high class house of joy behind which Sarah, now widowed, lives in a tiny cottage. Disowned by her aristocratic family when she was seduced by her brothers fencing master, she calls herself an Agent of Inquiry and supports herself by providing information and discreet errands for clients. Her latest task is to find an Italian fan, once given to a mistress of a now deceased Earl, which apparently contains a secret important to Englands future. This seems like an easy job until, as a result of her search, people keep getting murdered! And, hired thugs keep threatening her life and that of her love interest, the Earl of Versellion. Luckily Miss Tolerances ability to wield a small sword allows her to defend herself and her earl.
This was an anxious time politically. Mad King George III is on the throne, and the Whigs and the Tories undermine each other currying his favor while worrying about Napoleon's depredations and spies working for France. The story touches on anti-Catholic sentiments, the vogue for botanical and agricultural research, the disreputable Bow Street Runners (officers of Bow Street magistrates' court whose duty was to pursue and arrest criminals), clubs for men and separate ones for women, and the social importance of tea in the English diet.
Robinss depiction of Londons two worlds is excellent. Common laborers, beggars, prostitutes, and small time thieves come to life as well as the elite, scurrying off to their clubs, balls, and theater parties. Much is made of the extraordinary number and range of houses of prostitution in London at this time, from the meanest stew to the most elegant house of joy.
Once found, the secret of fan is a bit of a letdown and the pace of the action uneven. The authors predominant use of Sarahs formal name, Miss Tolerance, is a bit off putting. This constant usage for a main character is not found even in her hero Jane Austens novels. High marks nonetheless for Robins use of other period dialogue and speech patterns. Authors History Notes also reveal what is true and what not regarding historical events mentioned in the book.
First of two Sarah Tolerance mysteries.