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UNNATURAL FIRE

Fidelis Morgan

William Morrow
March 2001

Reviewed by Jennifer Ashley

Set in 1699, this book introduces two zealous sleuths, Countess Ashby de la Zouche and her maid, Alpiew. The book begins with the countess in Fleet (debtor's) Prison, ordering her butler, Godfrey, to sell a scandalous story about a fellow inmate to a newspaper. Alpiew hears the same story and runs swiftly to the newspaper office to sell it first, unknowingly cheating her former beloved employer out of the money. Discovering the countess in Fleet prison, she pays for her release and the two, estranged for nearly twenty years, are reunited.

The two ladies decide to make money by selling gossip regularly to the newspaper. Almost at once, they receive a visit from a Mrs. Wilson, who is convinced her husband has a lover. She offers three guineas if the pair will follow him and make a report to her. Alpiew and the countess follow him--and the next day he is brutally murdered.

The devastated Mrs. Wilson is arrested for the crime. Alpiew, shocked at the injustice of Mrs. Wilson's arrest, determines to find the real killer. Her search takes her and the countess into the world of alchemy and deeper into the dangerous realm of politics. With the help of Godfrey and the countess's friend the French duchesse, Alpiew and the countess sift through a mire of secrets and lies to find out who murdered the handsome Mr. Wilson and why. And why do his handkerchiefs glow in the dark?

This book is irreverent and fun, poking at English history and politics while it realistically portrays the last days of the seventeenth century. William III is on the throne, and is unfortunately short, Dutch, and parsimonious (according to the countess).

The countess, a former lover of Charles II, spends much of her time longing for warm food, a hot fire, and the good old days. Alpiew is the true sleuth of the novel, hounding the countess to not forget their obligation to save a woman from being wrongfully hanged. She tramps about looking for clues and solves much of the mystery.

I liked this book, though it does lapse into silliness (Isaac Newton lives next door, plus the countess speculates that the new shopping arcades, called malls, will never catch on). But the countess's zany friends, plus the truly warm-hearted Alpiew, are characters I want to read about again. The marketing blurb on my copy compared the book to Iian Pears' AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST and Dorothy Dunnett's books, but pay no attention. The feeling is more Defoe's MOLL FLANDERS or Fielding's TOM JONES.

I'd give this book a high recommendation for historical mystery lovers.

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