WHISPERS BEYOND THE VEIL is the first in the Change of Fortune mystery series (cover design by Katie Anderson, all rights to cover and images remain with current holders). As I enjoy Victorian-set fantasy, I made a note to check it out as soon as I saw it mentioned on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog (author Jessica Estevao is a member).
The Story: Ruby Proulx’s scapegrace father runs a patent medicine show. For years she’s helped him sell the rubes his phony remedies, and done some phony fortune-telling as entertainment for the audience (though it’s clear she has genuine talent, she doesn’t realize it). But when Pa’s latest remedy kills someone, he decides it’s all Ruby’s fault and packs her off to her mother’s sister, Honoria, in Maine, a woman Ruby’s never seen. It’s a chance for Ruby to start over and put her grifting past behind her.
Honoria runs a small hotel in a tourist town. She’s struggling to compete with the bigger, glitzier hotels by catering to the spiritualist and mystic trade, employing palm-readers, object-readers and a medium to attract her guests. Only the medium didn’t show, which will ruin the hotel. Unless someone can step into the breach … So Ruby finds herself back scamming people again, which she hates even though it’s in a good cause. And then there’s the blackmailer. And the murder. And the psychic debunker. And the suspicious cop. Things get ugly.
WHAT I LEARNED:
Details are awesome. Estevao includes lots of stuff about spiritualism and fake mediums, which makes it different from most Victorian-set yarns, (though most of it was details I already know). And then there’s touches like a scene inside a bathing machine — a little shelter that let women go into the water without too much male gaze landing on their swimsuits — showing how they work and how the clothes are stored. That was stuff I didn’t know, and I really liked it.
Pressure is good. What really held my attention was that Ruby is squeezed from all sides. She really does want to go straight, but circumstances refuse to cooperate. Honoria needs her. A blackmailer threatens to inform the cops about the medicine-show death unless she scams a couple of clients for him. The cop thinks Ruby’s scamming his sisters and wants to bust her. Honoria confesses to murder to protect Ruby, whom she thinks is guilty. It’s a real pressure cooker, and it interested me much more than the mystery plot. If I can put half as much pressure on Maria in Southern Discomforts, I’ll be pleased.
Bending under pressure, not so good. Unfortunately, when the pressure goes on, Ruby tends to fold. She’s reluctant to comply with the blackmailer’s scam, but she does it. Which works fine mid-book, but at the end she’s still lying to the cop, and it appears she’s also going to fudge to the cop’s sisters (while her psychic gift has provided them with good advice, she’s not actually in touch with their dead father, as they think). Yes, she catches a killer and winds up on the side of good, but it didn’t feel like she’d taken much of a stand.
Despite which, I really liked the book.