Scandalous Book Review: Midnight Fires, A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft
Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork, seat of the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family, fairly hums with intrigue. The new young governess, Mary Wollstonecraft, witnesses a stabbing and attends a pagan bonfire at which an illegitimate sprig of the nobility is killed. When the young Irishman Liam Donovan, who hated the aristocratic rogue for seducing his niece, becomes the prime suspect for his murder, Mary - ever champion of the oppressed, and susceptible to Liam's charms - determines to prove him innocent.
My thoughts: When I read about this book on the blog Reading the Past, I was intrigued. Mysteries with real life historical personages as the detectives are big right now, with series starring Jane Austen, Abigail Adams, and Beau Brummel on the shelves. I've also done a great deal of reading on Mary Wollstonecraft while researching SCANDALOUS WOMEN, and I thought the idea of Mary as a detective was fascinating. Most people know Mary Wollstonecraft as the mother of Mary Shelley, author of FRANKENSTEIN. Hopefully this series will introduce new readers to her mother's interesting life.
MIDNIGHT FIRES did not disappoint. Nancy Means Wright chooses one of the most tempestuous times in Mary's life, the year she spent working as a governess for the Kingsborough family, as the focus for her story. It was 1786, just after the end of American Revolution with the French Revolution three years away. Mary is at a crossroads in her life, her first book is about to come out, but the school that she ran just outside of London has closed and her best friend has died in childbirth. She has debts, her younger sisters are depending on her for guidance and support. Although she has absolutely no desire to take a job as a governess, she has very few choices at the moment.
Atlhough there is a mystery and 3 murders, what is exceptional about this book is the author's depiction of the aristocratic world of the Kingsborough's set against the backdrop of the Irish freedom fighters. Although the family considers themselves to be enlightened because they have built stone houses for some of the farmers, they have no real concept or liking for the country they are living in. For them, it's all about keeping the privileges that they are used to living with, even if it means keeping the Catholics impoverished and without rights. Mary is trapped between in a kind of no man's land, not a servant but not one of the family, which makes her a perfect choice to solve the mystery, because she can move freely between the worlds of the Irish peasants, the aristocracy and the servants. Mary wants to help but she also doesn't want to get involved. She doesn't want to care for the children of the Kingsborough family but she does in spite of herself.
Means Wright's depiction of Mary's character is spot on as is her depiction of the boisterous, flamboyant, notorious Kingsborough family, particularly the eldest daughter Margaret, and her mother Caroline, spoiled, selfish, flighty, but with pretensions of playing Lady Bountiful. A reader who knows Mary's story will recognize George Ogle, the poet, and Henry Gabell, the minister that Mary meets on board the ship over to Ireland. Ogle plays a major part in the mystery of the death of James King, a cousin and possible half-brother of Lord Kinsborough.
There is so much rich historical detail going on that the mystery seems like the cherry on top of a well-frosted cake. There are red herrings galore, and the identity of the murderers (because there is more than one) a complete surprise. Normally I'm able to figure out who the murderer is but Means Wright had me completely fooled. I look forward to reading the next installment of the series.
You can find out more about Nancy Means Wright and her other mystery series at her web-site.