THE TAINTED SNUFF BOX
Berkley Prime Crime Books, May 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Historical Mystery, Regency England
Beau Brummell is the detective in Rosemary Stevensí delightful new mystery series. The Beau is bored with being merely the fashion arbiter of upper class London; and Stevens makes it perfectly believable that a quick succession of murder mysteries provides just the spice his life needs Ė as long as the secret does not get out and ruin his leisurely image.
In THE TAINTED SNUFF BOX, the Prince of Wales is in a panic from receiving letters threatening his life. It is hard to believe that "Prinny," as the Prince is known to his friends, could have a murderous enemy. True, he has bad artistic taste, and he canít satisfy all the people who want favors from him, but that hardly seems motive enough. He isnít cramping the style of his dissolute, estranged wife, so her hatred doesnít seem likely to express itself in murder. The Prince consults the Beau Ė if such a terrified plea can be called "consulting."
Shortly after Brummellís arrival at the Princeís Pavilion in Brighton, the corpse of a young woman of quality washes up on the beach. It is followed by the very public death of the Princeís unsavory new companion, when he samples a new blend of snuff intended for the Prince. The circle of suspects includes Brummellís closest friends, an unhappy state of affairs indeed. As Brummell tries to find alternatives to condemning a friend to death, the reader makes the acquaintance of a wide range of people from the Prince of Wales to the bluestocking daughter of a Bow Street Runner. Somewhere high in that social range falls Chakkri, the only Siamese cat in England.
After reading the first in the series, DEATH ON A SILVER TRAY, I was sure I knew how Stevensí mind worked and I could interpret in THE TAINTED SNUFF BOX the clue she kept giving us. It turned out to be a big, bright red herring, meant to be taken entirely differently than at first it seems. The mystery takes off on a short run in an unexpected direction to bring us to an answer. We arenít meant to wonder whether the solution is realistic or not. The focus in this series is not on the detective work, but on portraying the Beau and his friends; and an appealing, funny portrayal it is.
The real Beau Brummell was a famous character of Regency society. Starting with no pedigree, no position in Society, and no background but money, he became the man who set fashion. He told Duchesses how to dress, made or broke tradesmen with a word of approval or criticism, and his cravats were the envy of every lordly gentleman. Stevens makes it clear in her books how this could have happened, because her Brummell is charming, courteous, witty, and above all, has impeccable taste. He must have cemented his position in Society with much the same star quality that later made hostesses feel no party was complete without Oscar Wilde.
Rosemary Stevens herself is not lacking in star quality. I was reading DEATH ON A SILVER TRAY on the bus when Brummell hired identical twins to carry his sedan chair, and it was a desperate struggle not to laugh out loud. The next day in the cafeteria, decorum lost the battle when I read the insinuating first page of THE TAINTED SNUFF BOX. Thank goodness I was at home when I read about Brummellís war with his cat for the center of the bed, so I could give it the appreciation it deserved.
When life is challenging, a book like this is the place to take a break. With these books you can sink in, spread out, and luxuriate as you would on a pile of comforters. In the ironic comments Brummell makes about himself, his lazy putdowns of pretentious associates, his sharp but affectionate observations, one can see that Rosemary Stevens is a truly clever lady. DEATH ON A SILVER TRAY won the Agatha for Best First Mystery, and it was deserved. THE TAINTED SNUFF BOX is equal to its standard. I immediately ordered the new book in the series, THE BLOODIED CRAVAT.
July 2002 Review Originally Published on Reviewing The Evidence
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