A- #BookReview: The Mummy of Mayfair by Jeri Westerson

A- #BookReview: The Mummy of Mayfair by Jeri WestersonThe Mummy of Mayfair (An Irregular Detective Mystery #2) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Irregular Detective #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on July 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Private investigators Timothy Badger and Benjamin Watson take on another unusual and baffling case in Victorian London when a mummy unwrapping party takes a chilling turn.London, 1895. Although their last high profile case was a huge success, private detectives Tim Badger and Benjamin Watson know they can't afford to turn down any work, despite financial assistance from their mentor, Sherlock Holmes.So when the eminent Doctor Enock Sawyer of St Bart's Hospital asks Badger if the duo will provide security for a mummy unwrapping party he is hosting, Badger doesn't hesitate to take the job. After all, how hard can guarding the doctor's bizarre Egyptian artefacts be? But with Doctor Sawyer running late for his own party, the 'genuine' ancient sarcophagus of Runihura Saa is unravelled to reveal the remains of . . . Doctor Sawyer! Suddenly, the pair are drawn into a new case that's stranger and twister than they could ever have imagined.

My Review:

The “irregularity” of the Irregular Detective series is in the person of one of its protagonists, Timothy Badger of the Badger and Watson Detecting Agency. Once upon a time, Badger was one of the “invisible” children who operated as Sherlock Holmes’ eyes and ears on the streets of Victorian London. In other words, Tim Badger was one of Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

But when Badger aged out – or grew up – out of the Irregulars, he still needed to make his living. Which is where his partner, jack-of-all-trades Benjamin Watson comes into the picture. Both from the “wrong side of the tracks” in the East End, without a shilling between them, they set up as private detectives in the mode of Badger’s former ‘Guv’, the Great Detective himself.

As seen in the first entry in this series, The Isolated Séance, after five years of struggle to keep body and soul together, Sherlock Holmes himself gave these ‘apprentices’ a bit of a leg up. Their perseverance was rewarded with rooms in Soho – several steps up the economic ladder from their previous lodgings and office – and a seemingly magical refilling box of money for expenses.

They’re doing well for themselves. It’s a lot of hard work and shoe leather – but their successes seem to outnumber their failures. They have as much work as they can handle – and even their own chronicler in the person of newspaper reporter Ellsie Littleton.

Which leads to this second sensational case, The Mummy of Mayfair. A moniker that seems ripped, not from the headlines, but from the titles of the penny dreadful fiction that Badger loves to read. Watson prefers the newspapers and scientific journals.

After all, someone in this partnership needs to keep their feet on the ground, especially with a case that has so much potential to ascend – or perhaps that’s descend – into flights of fantasy and mythology.

It begins with a mummy unwrapping party. An all too common event among the upper crust in the 1890s. It was the heyday of ‘Egyptomania’, with all of the implications of madness the word mania implies.

Badger and Watson were hired by Dr. Enoch Sawyer to provide security for his mummy unwrapping party. A party that takes an even more macabre turn when the mummy is finally unwrapped to reveal that it’s not the mummy of Runihura Saa. It’s the much more recent mummy of Dr. Enoch Sawyer – their client – who is clearly not going to be able to pay them for the job they are about to do on his behalf.

And the game is afoot!

Escape Rating A-: First, I loved this every bit as much as the first book in this series, The Isolated Séance. Second, I need to kick myself for not figuring out that the series title is a pun until now. I sorta/kinda thought the cases were “irregular” and they are that – from a séance in the first book to a mummy in the second. But it’s the DETECTIVES – or at least one of them – that are irregular. As in, the Baker Street Irregulars. 🤦🏻

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, what makes this case so much fun is the way that it blends the real with the fictional.

Mummy unwrapping parties were a very real thing in the 1890s – as shown in the painting below by artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux circa 1890. The scene may seem macabre to 21st century readers, but such parties were all the rage in 1895, when The Mummy of Mayfair takes place.

Rage also being an important factor – at least in this particular case – as the ‘mania’ led people to strange rivalries and illegal behaviors – as humans are wont to do in the throes of a craze, fad, or mania. It still happens now, and humans haven’t changed all that much in just a bit over a century.

As much as the insanity of this particular mania turns out to be the impetus for the actions of the characters, what is making the series work are the characters and the way they manage to fit into – and take off from – the canon of Sherlock Holmes and ITS well-known and loved protagonists.

The best detectives, whether amateur or professional, are outsiders. It’s nearly impossible for humans to set aside their preconceived notions and biases in regards to people they know. A fact which very nearly sends the entire case on a wild goose chase, as one of the possible suspects is one of Badger’s former colleagues in the Irregulars.

But the triumvirate necessary to fill all of the roles that in the original canon were filled by just two changes the structure of the investigation even as it challenges the reader to see Holmes’ Victorian age from a considerably less lofty perspective.

Timothy Badger grew up in the East End, living by his wits and the nimbleness of his fingers. His accent clearly marks him as being of a “lower class” to the toffs among whom he now finds himself – and he has to grow into his role without giving up who he essentially is.

Benjamin Watson is a black man in a white world. The first thing that anyone sees when they meet him is the color of his skin. He has the intelligence and the drive to have been anything within his reach, but his reach in the late Victorian era is circumscribed by his race.

Miss Ellsie Moira Littleton is a woman in a man’s world. Much like Charlotte Sloane in the Regency-set Wrexford and Sloane series, Ellsie has been forced by circumstances to be self-supporting, and is on the outside of the society to which she was born. As an intelligent, educated, woman who needs to make her own way, she is also an outsider but with an entirely different perspective on the society of which she was once a member.

From its sensational beginning, the case is a deeply puzzling mess. Badger and Watson’s preconceived notions about their clients and their former associates, as well as their lack of knowledge of the precise ways the rich spend their time and money and protect their positions frequently send them haring off in the wrong directions – and we follow them eagerly even as they frequently caution each other.

As I’ve said frequently within these pages, I’m a sucker for Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and that’s why I initially started this series. Now I’m hooked! I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series, The Misplaced Physician, where we’ll finally get to meet Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, as Badger and his Watson will be on the case of rescuing him! It’s a good thing that investigative reporter Ellsie Littleton will be on hand to record the adventure, as the original Watson may be too embarrassed – or too injured – to write it up himself.

We’ll certainly see, hopefully this time next year!

Review: The Isolated Seance by Jeri Westerson

Review: The Isolated Seance by Jeri WestersonThe Isolated Séance (An Irregular Detective Mystery #1) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Irregular Detective #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on June 6, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

The first in a gripping new Victorian mystery series set in London from critically acclaimed author Jeri Westerson.
Watch out, Sherlock! Introducing one-time Baker Street Irregular Timothy Badger and his partner-in-crime Benjamin Watson, two exciting and unconventional young consulting detectives, mentored by the great man himself, tackling intriguing and unusual cases in Victorian London with endearing verve and wit.
Sherlock Holmes's protégés Tim Badger and Benjamin Watson are catapulted into a tricky first case when a man is brutally murdered during a séance.
London, 1895. Former Baker Street Irregular Tim Badger is determined to follow in the footsteps of his great mentor, Sherlock Holmes, by opening his own consulting detective agency with his partner, Benjamin Watson. The intrepid duo are ready to make a name for themselves . . . if only they had clients!
Their luck changes when Sherlock recommends his protégés to Thomas Brent. Brent is eager to find out who killed his master, Horace Quinn, during a séance at Quinn's house. What was Quinn desperately trying to find out from his deceased business partner, Stephen Latimer, before he was stabbed through the heart?
It seems that everyone in Quinn's household had a reason to want him dead. Can Tim and Benjamin step out of Sherlock's shadow to navigate dark secrets and unexpected dangers in their pursuit of a cold-blooded killer?

My Review:

Sherlock Holmes was such a towering figure of investigative genius that it takes not one but two men to even think of stepping into his shoes. Someday, when they’ve got a little more experience under their belts and are a bit more confident in their ability to even hold a clue-seeking magnifying glass up to the ‘Great Detective’s’ bootprints.

Sherlock meets the Irregulars in A Study in Scarlet, as illustrated by Richard Gutschmidt.

Once upon a time, and not all that long ago in the year 1895, Tim Badger was one of the many street urchins that Holmes employed as his Baker Street Irregulars, beginning in Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, back in 1881.

In 1881, the Irregulars were all children – or at most teens. Inevitably, they grew up. Well, some of them at least, as the game afoot on the streets of London in the late 19th century in their circumstances was that of survival of the fittest – and the Irregulars all entered that game with the deck stacked against them.

But it’s not a surprise that one of those survivors would outgrow the Irregulars with a talent for detection and the same burning need that drove their mentor Holmes, a desire to make a living by righting wrongs and pursuing criminals. Even though there are better ways to make a living and the odds are still stacked against them.

Tim Badger is just one of those ragamuffin boys who has aged out of being invisible and now has to make a living for himself. He’s chosen to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, with the assistance of his very own Watson. But unlike Holmes’ Dr. Watson, Mr. Benjamin Watson is in every bit the same poverty-stricken circumstances as Badger.

Ben Watson is a young black man with a penchant for chemistry and an oddly assorted collection of surprisingly useful odd jobs in his past. A past that isn’t nearly as checkered as Badger’s.

Their first big case is a desperate one, and so are they, even though they’re handed that case on Holmes’ silver salver, for reasons that Badger and Watson have yet to determine. Holmes claims he’s too busy, but that’s pure balderdash and Badger knows it. For Holmes the case would be easy as pie, but for the two fledgling detectives in a race to prove that a young man was wrongfully accused of murdering his employer – it’s the chance of a lifetime.

Or the end of more lives than just their client’s, including, quite possibly, their own.

Escape Rating A-: Surprisingly and delightfully, The Isolated Séance is a story of Sherlock Holmes, of all people, paying it forward – in spite of that phrase not being in common parlance until more than a century later.

As a way of making the leap from Holmes himself to a ‘new generation’ it’s an excellent way of shifting the focus of this Holmes pastiche from the great man to a couple of young men just getting their start – as Holmes and his Watson were when they first took rooms together at 221b.

We get just enough of a glimpse of Badger and Watson’s original circumstances to see just how much the two young men are in over their heads when Holmes steps in and gives them not just a case but an astonishing hand up in their attempts to follow the path he has already broken and solve a case that is every bit as convoluted as anything Holmes himself took on.

Holmes calls his starting grant to them an investment in his legacy, and so it proves. It also helps kick the story into a higher gear as it removes many of the external impediments to their possible success, giving both the characters and the reader a chance to focus on those impediments that are inherent to the case itself and to their maturity – or rather its lack. Particularly in Badger’s case.

(Although both men are very young, Watson’s circumstances as a black man in a city that is prejudiced against him at every turn gives him a bit of caution and maturity that Badger sadly lacks. Watson’s perspective as someone who will always be considered an outsider even before he opens his mouth reminds this reader of the relationship between a young Mycroft Holmes and the more mature Cyrus Douglas in Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes series. Please consider this a readalike recommendation as the Jabbar series is marvelous.)

The case itself is a farrago of mysterious circumstances, wild conjectures, police intractability and mistaken identity from its murderous beginning in the midst of a seance to its tragic, justly unjust ending. Elements which are present in much of Holmes’ canonical casebook as well.

But the way that Badger and Watson come to their solution – and wrestle with their consciences along the way – stands on its own merits. As do they. I look forward to watching their career continue in the second book in this series, The Mummy of Mayfair, hopefully this time next year!