I don't read a lot of mysteries but as a historical fiction lover I'm trying to add a few historical mysteries to my diet. I enjoyed this book, although I don't think there's anything remarkable about the mystery aspect of it, and it doesn't have that suck-you-in, heartpounding factor of a thriller. What drew me to it were its historical setting in eighteenth-century Ireland and its real-life heroine, Mary Wollstonecraft.
Hands down the best part of this book is Mary. Mary's a gem of a character. Normally a heroine in a historical fiction novel who is ahead of her time in thought and action would be unrealistic, but Mary really was that kind of woman! In fact, her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, makes an appearance in this story.
Smarting from a failed love affair, indebted and responsible for her sisters' welfare, Mary leaves London behind and takes a one-year assignment as a governess to a noble Irish family, though she has serious reservations:
"Governesses, she had heard, constituted one of the largest classes of insane women in asylums. The thought was not at all comforting."
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and this gig as a governess is temporary. Mary has plans, she's going to be being an authoress, and the Kingsboroughs provide plenty of inspiration:
"I haven't penned a novel," she said. "But I do have one in mind."
And she had, yes. She had begun a novel in her head. One of the characters would be a lady who loved her dogs more than her daughters. A lord who hunted, womanized, pitchcapped unhappy peasants, and drank his way through life...
She found it promising. She imagined the faces of her dumbfounded employers as they read her first novel. Mary, a Fiction, she would call it."
Yet even as she disdains her aristocratic employers, she can't help but be drawn into their drama. And with a sympathetic heart and a passion for justice, she gets drawn into the poor tenants' lives, too. When a member of the Kingsborough family is murdered and the handsome, rebellious tenant Liam is accused and forced to flee, thus threatening the livelihood of his family, Mary takes action. And there's never a dull moment with Mary, for Mary's not entirely grounded in reality. A daydreamer with a vivid imagination, Mary gets a little carried away. She creates a romantic fantasy in her mind and becomes determined to reveal the identity of the true killer and earn Liam's undying love and gratitude in the process.
There are suspects galore: the Master, the Mistress, the land agent and his wife, a poet, a former governess, jilted lovers, angry peasants, etc. And as in all good whodunits, none of them are guilt-free, all of them having had a part to play in the events leading up to the murder, if not the actual murder itself.
This was a sharp and sassy little romp and I look forward to reading more of Mary's adventures, the next of which is already in the works. The author provides some good background information on this fascinating woman and I can't wait to read about some of the more pivotal events in her life. Until then, I leave you with one of my favorite Mary quotes from Midnight Fires:
"Mary vowed once again to remain a spinster. Babies and books were not a good mix."