Point of Honour by Madeleine E. Robins
(Forge, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-87202-X
As a student of British history I always found the Victorians much more fascinating than their Regency counterparts. In fact, the Regency era tends to bore me to tears. Outside of King George III’s madness and those upstart colonists, I find the Season and Beau Brummel tiresome. That is until I stumbled across Robins’ latest novel, her first historical mystery, while browsing in a bookstore. Not only is it fascinating stuff, but her main character needs a spot in the Heroine Hall of Fame.

Miss Sarah Tolerance is a Fallen Woman. From a respectable family she had the nerve to fall in love with her brother’s fencing instructor and run away with him. With her lover now deceased, she returns to England only to find herself with limited options. Being from a respectable family gives a woman few marketable skills outside of her virtue, and with Sarah’s virtue now in tatters everyone figures she should just get it over with and become a whore. However our fair heroine has far too much pride for that and instead goes into business for herself as an “agent of inquiry.”

For a price and the promise of discretion, Miss Tolerance investigates matters for her clients. When Lord Trux shows up on her doorstep acting as an agent for another, Sarah accepts the commission. She is to find an Italian fan that was once given to a mistress and return it to her anonymous client. Seems like a silly affair to Miss Tolerance, but she accepts the job. No sooner is she on the trail than she learns the business is anything but silly. There are others looking for the fan - everyone from hired thugs to powerful political men and when the identity of her client is revealed to her, Miss Tolerance’s adventures soon take on a deadly spin.

What is there not to like about Sarah Tolerance? She is intelligent, practical, handy with a sword (thanks to her lover), and does more than her fair share of “butt-kicking” over the course of this story. Her deductive reasoning skills rival Sherlock Holmes’ and she is not the sort of woman to shrink away when threatened by bullies. While society views Fallen Women as lacking scruples and decorum, Sarah easily transverses the boundaries that society sets in her way with tenacity, tact and enviable skill.

The mystery takes some time to develop, but the author does an amiable job slowly building momentum towards a rather climatic finish. While I had begun to feel that Miss Tolerance was a bit of a Regency Superwoman, by the end of the story her underlying vulnerability begins to show, making her even more appealing.

Readers who find themselves fascinated by Regency history will find plenty of it here - although purists may raise an eyebrow. Miss Tolerance is nothing short of practical, and therefore chooses to wear men’s clothing when working. However she blessedly does not try to disguise her gender and masquerade as a male. Robins also chooses to rewrite some history in the name of storytelling (which is her prerogative given that this is historical fiction) and she explains all in a final note at the close of the last chapter.

The writing style and much of the story is what I like to call “Oh So Proper English” with characters never coming out and just saying anything - choosing instead to hedge their bets and make Miss Tolerance’s work a bit more complicated. The mystery is classic noir - complete with foggy streets, unscrupulous characters and hidden motives. Jane Austen meets Dashiell Hammett if you will.

With an unusual setting for a mystery novel, and a refreshingly different heroine helming the story, Point Of Honour has the ability for crossover appeal. Romance readers may find the different take on the Regency refreshing, and mystery lovers who enjoy strong female leads will be in heaven. Here’s hoping Robins’ creation is a huge success and Forge green lights more books featuring the resourceful Miss Tolerance.

--Wendy Crutcher

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