Final Rating: Four cups of mysterious, murderous tea!
Continuing the trend of me squealing in delight when dramatic things happen to ladies wearing corsets and bustle skirts, Dangerous to Know was a captivating and fun read that genuinely surprised me in a few places. While the mystery its pages contain was not, in my opinion, particularly challenging to unravel, the setting and the characters more than made up for any shortcomings the plot may have had.
(The real mystery, though, is where that young lady’s right glove has gone in the cover art–I cannot seem to find it anywhere!)
This is, apparently, the 5th book in the Lady Emily series, and nowhere near the most recent. (A quick glance at Goodreads tells me that the series has 10 books already, with an 11th on the way. Prolific!) I admit I haven’t heard anything before about either the author or the series, which is a shame. Alexander has a quick, easy style that captured my attention immediately and kept it with sharp pacing that never left me bored. She focuses largely on dialogue and interpersonal interaction to move the plot forward, which is how I prefer things. (Please, continue to forever spare me from tiresome info-dumps and exposition with all the dynamism of a stale cracker.)
Mysteries abound in Dangerous to Know: Who murdered young Edith Prier, and why? Is there really a young, ghostly girl wandering the countryside in search of a mother to love her? Who has been stealing priceless art from well-to-do households in the area? And just how many times can Lady Emily have amazing sex with her husband before the both of them disintegrate and float away into the ether? (Seriously, these two are touching by the end of like, almost every chapter. It’s delightful.)
Better yet, the female characters outnumber the male ones almost 2-to-1, and the men we do encounter all tend to be interesting and aren’t just Manpain on two legs. (So refreshing!) Actually, there is one guy who might be considered thus, but he is so absurdly dramatic and brooding that he breezes right past Boring and straight into Hilarious. Even Lady Emily herself remarks several times that he’s quite amusing without meaning to be, and that the world just wouldn’t be quite the same without his carefully cultivated scowl.
How much I loved the characters is probably my favorite takeaway from Dangerous to Know. Much to my surprise, I loved all of them, even the ones I was meant to dislike. This was particularly evident in the case of Lady Emily’s new mother-in-law, Mrs. Hargreaves. At first, she is presented as being cold and distant, but through a series of brief snippets taken from her personal journal, we receive a look at her own inner thoughts and feelings to help us bond with her while the other characters are elsewhere. It was done with a light hand, giving the reader an emotional anchor to a character who would have otherwise seemed like a terribly dull trope. And, now that we’ve reached the end of the book, I can honestly say I look forward to seeing Mrs. Hargreaves again and in fact would happily read a spin-off series just about her.
Sadly, Dangerous to Know isn’t perfect. To start with, the entire plot is based largely on “madness” passing through family lines and, despite being probably the gentlest and least gratuitous exploration of this concept I have yet seen in a period drama, is still fairly ableist. (I will say, though, that I deeply appreciated the character of Dr. Girard and his insistence on running an asylum that was clean, kind, and compassionate towards those it housed.) And, as I mentioned before, the main mystery is interesting, but not difficult to solve. It ends up being one of things where the Whodunnit is someone that the reader has been given absolutely no information or clues on, reminiscent of a Christie drama where the entire thing hinges on a misunderstanding two characters had 50 pages back that no one but the Dame herself noticed. The outcome may surprise some, but anyone who has spent any time in the mystery genre at all will see the pattern here immediately. There were also zero people of color in this book, nor was there anyone who fell anywhere on the LGBT spectrum. This, sadly, is very much a book about Straight, White Cis People Doing Things. (Considering the genre this isn’t especially shocking–but I do forever hold out the hope of being surprised when I read things.)
Then there is the issue of Colin, Lady Emily’s husband. Despite my initial warmth towards him, he quickly becomes a source of disappointment as he starts to gaslight Emily over what she thinks might be ghostly visions of her lost child. He then doubles down on this by insisting that it is time for her to move past her grief and depression because “it’s no good for her”. While he does this kindly, it got my hackles up in the worst way because for one thing, he never asks her to talk with him about how she’s feeling. He gives her no outlet for the sadness and guilt which is clearly plaguing her, and yet expects some kind of speedy resolution. Later on he becomes even more frustrating by insisting that Lady Emily is no longer allowed to take an active role in the murder investigation. Though he insists over and over again that she is his intellectual equal, the “physical qualities” of a lady are, in his opinion, not up to the task of keeping her safe and therefore she must hold back. But of course he still picks her brain for all of the emotional connections and clues that he’s too stubborn to catch himself. I may have uttered some incredibly choice words at this point.
Most of the time, a male character behaving in such a way would have been cause for a DNF, or a much lower rating. But the thing I actually liked about Colin’s misdeeds was Lady Emily’s internal dialogue during these scenes. So often, I see female characters who ignore or romanticize terrible behavior. In this case it felt more like reality: Emily saw it for what it was, but just wasn’t sure what to do about it. And isn’t that often how it goes? We know something’s wrong, and we know we’re hurt, but what do we say? How do we reconcile loving someone who doesn’t quite see us as a whole person? Many of the books I’ve reviewed here have abusive men in them, and most of the time these men are Very Obviously Bad News. They do things like shout, slam doors, or kidnap people. It’s easy to point to that and say, “This is wrong.” But it’s far more difficult (and common) for abusive dynamics to be hidden behind kindness and worry.
Colin genuinely loves Emily, and she him, but that doesn’t negate any of the harm his words do. Emily is shattered by what he says, but isn’t sure how to proceed–she can agree with his desire to protect her, but not the way in which he frames the situation. But what can she do? Arguing with him leads nowhere, and disobeying him would mean lying to the man that she loves. Her love for him intensifies her feelings of guilt, because she can’t stand the thought of treating him the way he’s treating her. While this sounds like the worst kind of nightmare–and it is, having lived it–reading it on paper was strangely cathartic for me. Emily’s internal honesty about how Colin’s behavior makes her feel was refreshing; in the end Alexander perhaps doesn’t give Colin the hard crash against his own hubris that I desired, but she also didn’t make it so that Emily swallows her hurt whole. Taken with the reveal of Whodunnit at the end of the book, you might even say that Dangerous to Know quietly makes the point that men who are obsessed with their own love are destined to only ever bring evil into the world, which is a message I strongly agree with.
And, overall, that’s how I’d describe how this book felt to me: It handles content that, in other books, I’d find atrocious and deeply hurtful…but somehow, despite being about gruesome murders, gaslighting husbands and ableism, Dangerous to Know manages to be gentle. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but for myself I never once experienced that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read. Which, I can honestly say, was a welcome relief.
In conclusion, Dangerous to Know was a fun, light read that I enjoyed thoroughly. I’m excited to explore the rest of the Lady Emily series and will be following this author’s work closely from now on!