Face Down Upon an Herbal

Originally published in June 2004, on my original 52 Books blog.

I went to explore the new location of my favourite second-hand bookshop (which I approve of, although some of the mystery is gone - along with the mustiness) and came home with this book. It’s the second in a series, with all the books titled Face Down “something” .

Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson
Year published: 1998
Genre: Mystery
Sub-genre(s): Historical
Where got: Second-hand book store

The story:
Susanna, Lady Appleton, is sent to Madderly Castle, ostensibly to help Lady Madderly finish a book on herbology, but in reality to provide an excuse for her husband, Robert, to come there to investigate the murder of a man who was apparently involved in a conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth I. Shortly after arriving, the body count starts to mount and Susanna’s young protége, Catherine, falls in love with of one of the prime suspects. Solving the crimes takes the combined efforts of Susanna, Catherine, Robert and a couple of other people working together.

Technique and plot:
I have to admit that I have yet to come across a historical mystery series that equals Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, but this will do nicely.

This is a cleverly set up murder mystery that relies upon the premise so favoured by Agatha Christie and many other Golden Era mystery authors: all the primary suspects being still present at the scene of the crime when the investigation takes place. It takes the investigators almost the whole book to discover whether the murders were politically motivated or not, the first victim having been suspected of treason and the murderer possibly an accomplice. An experienced reader of mysteries will have guessed the killer’s identity before too many chapters, but will still be kept in doubt as to the motive and correctness of the guess nearly until the end. The inclusion of a romance is a nice touch, especially as the reader is given ample reason to believe that the man Catherine falls in love with might be the killer. Emerson does not fall into the trap some mystery authors are wont to, namely to make the reader dislike the killer (one of the few things I don’t like about The Cat Who series).

The narrative contains some unnecessary but mouth-watering descriptions of food and likewise unnecessarily detailed descriptions of herbal remedies. Being that so much is made of the fact that Lady Appleton is a herbalist and an expert on poisons, I expected this expertise of hers to be in some way related to the investigation, but it was merely used as a device to bring her to the murder scene.

This is quite an interesting mystery - Emerson has found a niche in the mystery market by choosing a era not many mystery authors seem interested in. The language seems genuine enough, with a suitable sprinkling of archaisms and old-fashioned word order, which unfortunately sometimes leaks out into the narrative.

An interesting mystery that will keep fans of historical mysteries occupied for an afternoon. 3 stars.


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