by Jane Jakeman
Published by Berkley Prime Crime
256 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Cindy Chow
In the hands of a less talented author, Fool's Gold could have been an uninspiring historical mystery with little to distinguish it from the hundreds of other English period novels. All of the elements of a classic, if unoriginal, historical mystery are present in Jane Jakeman's third Lord Ambrose mystery (after Let There Be Blood and The Egyptian Coffin). There's a rakish Byronic hero, a star- and class-crossed romance with an English governess, a locked-room murder, an obtuse law enforcer and a houseful of relatives as obvious suspects. What makes Fool's Gold -- set in 1833 -- a delightful find, however, are the twists Jakeman, a well-known journalist and art historian, injects into this most distinctive entry in an already successful series.
Protagonist Ambrose Malfine, son of an English squire and his exiled Cretan wife, bears the title of a lord; yet his scars, maternal Greek heritage and notable hermitlike inclinations separate him from the upper-crust society of England's West Country and make him more of an oddity than a figure of respect. For Ambrose, there is no obstacle to his pursuit of the widowed governess Elisabeth Anstruther; he would readily marry her, despite their manifest class differences. ("I was smitten by that woman when first I clapped eyes on her," Lord Ambrose explains to the reader, "and could not free myself no matter how hard I tried -- and the same seemed to hold true for her.") Yet while he evidently cares nothing for the opinions of others, Elisabeth, for her part, is reluctant to wed, citing not social restraints and prejudices, but rather a disinclination to intrude upon his very set and introverted lifestyle.
Instead, Elisabeth accepts a position at Jesmond Place, in the nearby village of Combwich, serving as the French-language tutor and companion to young Lady Clara Jesmond, a woman of low birth who has married far above her station and is now seeking to carve out a place among the Georgian bon ton. Ambrose's pride prevents him from begging his beloved to stay, or else following her -- at least until he receives a letter from Elisabeth, relating the rather disturbing events that have been occurring lately in the ramshackle Jesmond mansion. It seems that within days of her arrival there, Sir Antony Jesmond's young Bristol physician, Dr. John Kelsoe, perished in his bed, having apparently committed suicide with prussic acid. What alarms Elisabeth -- and Ambrose, in turn -- is that the doctor appears to have put the stopper back neatly on the poison bottle, even though he was surely writhing in pain after ingesting the toxic liquid.
Ambrose restrains himself from running to Elisabeth's aid -- for about a minute. Then he hies off to Jesmond Place, where he soon encounters another death, this time of Cyriack Jesmond, the resident patriarch's spoiled and utterly odious scion. The boy's demise, again the result of poison, has Lady Jesmond looking decidedly guilty -- but not for the reasons one might expect, when a handsome, virile young gent comes to live in a household where his father's new wife is significantly closer to his age than to that of her hubby. In this case, it is Sir Antony's misogynistic and patronizing Last Will and Testament that incriminates Clara. In it, he designated Cyriack as the sole beneficiary of his estate, should his wife ever became involved with another man, following her husband's death. With the son now conveniently out of the way, suspicions are raised that Clara did him in for eventual monetary gain. The somewhat vapid lady has Elisabeth's sympathy, if not her respect; and she feels reluctant to leave Lady Jesmond -- especially when the local Justice of the Peace seems determined to prosecute Clara for her stepson's murder.
After bringing in a friend to look after Elisabeth, lest she be accosted by a still-at-large killer, Ambrose follows the leads of his investigation to a surprising place: the much-lauded Oxford College, an institution he literally ran away from in his youth in order to join the Greek army. As he proclaims, "Nothing in my education has ever done me anything like as much good as the running away from it." In Ambrose's opinion, Oxford's value didn't extend much beyond indulging the indolence of its students, leaving them to interrupt their lassitude only to publish their own poetry or perhaps perform in private theatricals. That traditions have not changed at Oxford since his stretch there is confirmed by Ambrose's encounter with a porter, who expresses dismay over the goings-on at nearby Pembroke College:
I do hear tell that they are making their Fellows pass their examinations! We would never do that here -- this is a gentleman's college, I say.
Both Dr. Kelsoe and Cyriack Jesmond once studied at Oxford as well, and it is there that Ambrose hopes to learn the precise make-up of the poison which sent those two men to their early graves. His visit is soon disrupted, however, by the discovery that Lady Jesmond is descended from -- gasp! -- a thespian, and that her life may now be in danger. Quickly, Ambrose returns to Jesmond Place, with the intention of whisking Elisabeth off and thus saving her from further risk. Yet she does not take kindly at all to his high-handed insistence that she depart the premises.
Elisabeth did not reply. She rose, swinging her skirts, and stepped indoors. Of a lesser woman, it might have been said, she flounced.
Ambrose is right, though, to worry. For it's at this point in the story where his investigation takes an unexpected course, veering away from family shenanigans toward more esoteric motivations involving greed, alchemy and madness.
Author Jakeman (perhaps best known for writing the atmospheric historical thriller In the Kingdom of Mists ), weaves in Fool's Gold a delightful and original mystery that hinges on Ambrose Malfine, a character who is sarcastic and derisive of social orders, and whose experiences fighting in the Greek War of Independence led to his reclusiveness. Those few people he allows into his life reflect his quirkiness and independence. There's Belos, for one, a literally starving actor whom Ambrose rescued in Greece, and who now serves loyally as his manservant, but is never shy with his opinions or prone to hide his connections to some pretty shady figures. And of course there is Elisabeth, a willful and attractive young woman who had taken on the responsibility of rearing Edmund Crawshay, a boy whose parents were recently murdered. Unfortunately, Elisabeth and Belos appear only sporadically in this latest novel, and the events that united this engaging threesome are alluded to only as having occurred in earlier installments of the series. A bit more background would have been useful to readers who are just catching up to the Lord Ambrose mysteries.
Jakeman beautifully re-creates the Bristol area of the 1830s, acquainting readers with its class structures and rambling manor houses, as well as the oppressive xenophobia rampant in England at the time. The dialogue in these pages seems true to the period and is utterly charming, subtly revealing Ambrose's biting wit. Far from being a cookie-cutter historical whodunit, Fool's Gold is every bit as tempting -- and deceptive -- as its title implies, with a dashing protagonist who has the unenviable habit of attracting murder. At least for readers, this last fact is a very fortunate thing. | April 2006