WHY?: I really like books that are primarily X (whatever X may be - in this case a mystery) but that have a long simmering romance that bubbles along in the background. Book 6 in this series was mentioned in a Book Riot post about best literary love declarations which got me intrigued. The fact that historical mysteries are my jam, sealed the deal.
NOTE: There will be some mild spoilers in this review. I won't reveal the murderer or anything but the identity of the main suspect's identity is up for question during the first couple chapters.
SYNOPSIS: The murder of a sailor in an opium den unexpectedly intrudes into the well-ordered life of one of the most prominent families in Boston, the Hewitts. The matriarch, Viola is particularly concerned and she enlists the help of Nell Sweeney, her adopted daughter's governess, to dig into the case and find out what she can. What connects this lowly sea man to the wealthy and prominent Hewitt's? Why does the main suspect refuse to admit or deny his guilt?
The subtitle for this book could have been - Everything you ever wanted to know about smoking opium and being an opium addict. Another subtitle could have been Man, the Civil War really sucked.
The book begins in 1863 but the majority of the story takes place a couple years after the U.S. Civil War has ended. It wastes no time throwing curve balls at the readers and it's got a couple of killer twists/hooks right off the bat that served to suck me into the mystery. It is a fantastic beginning! However, that level of eventfulness and action is not sustained and in fact the book dragged a little from time to time but for the most part I was engaged with the mystery.
The historical aspect of the book is handled okay though I didn't think, besides the Civil War aftermath, it was too important to the plot. Some of the conventions and restrictions of the time come into play but we are introduced to many characters who flout these conventions and don't seem to be negatively impacted in any way, which ends up feeling a little anachronistic.
Ryan takes great pains, more pains than the average historical mystery, to flesh out her main characters and give them some depth. Nell is not entirely what she at first appears and her motivations throughout for sticking her nose into the mystery are pretty solid. First, she has great affection and gratitude for her mistress and wishes to be loyal, then her reasons become more personal when she develops an attachment to the murder suspect. I really liked Nell even though she is described as being very attractive to men. Why can't we ever have heroines, even in mysteries that are just fine looking but have kick-ass personalities? *shrugs* At least in this book, Ryan uses Nell's attractiveness as a means to open up otherwise closed doors as Nell investigates (a little bit ala the episode The Bubble on 30 Rock). The murder suspect William Hewitt, Viola's thought-to-be-lost son, has a very interesting history which has served to wreck him pretty thoroughly.
Finally, I have to talk about the romance since that is what initially drew me to pick up the series. Unfortunately, I found it decidedly meh because I thought Viola's love interest was pretty insufferable. He's arrogant, rebellious, impossibly handsome and has a serious case of the poor little rich kid blues. Ryan does her best to give him a tragic enough back story to explain why he is troubled and, of course, at heart he is solid gold but I just didn't like him. As soon as I detected the way the wind was blowing, I think I may have emitted an audible groan. I personally preferred the police detective, who is not nearly so handsome but is hard working and a lot smarter than the average Joe. He sadly has a loving wife. Sigh...... I am willing to see how things develop in the next book but based on this first installment the romantic elements will not be what draws me on in the series.
FINAL VERDICT: A mostly engaging historical mystery series with an interesting female protagonist. I recommend as long as you are not a stickler for historical accuracy or mind learning A LOT about smoking Opium. 3 out of 5 stars.