In Milady's Chamber
by Sheri Cobb South
(Five Star, $25.95, G) ISBN 1-594-14370-6
***
Sheri Cobb South returns with In Milady's Chamber, a Regency murder mystery featuring two leads from different social classes. Lady Julia Fieldhurst is the wife of a Foreign Office dignitary. Julia is young, beautiful, and apparently barren; Viscount Fieldhurst has turned his back on her and consoles himself with a series of mistresses. Julia has decided to take a lover, and her target is her escort, Lord Rupert Latham. When they return from a ball and make their way to Julia's bedchamber for the first time, a nasty surprise awaits. Lord Fieldhurst is lying dead on the floor, with Julia's nail scissors protruding from his neck.

Young Bow Street Runner John Pickett is summoned to the Fieldhurst home. At first glance, this looks like a lover's triangle turned violent. Pickett's superior, Mr. Colquhoun, believes it's an open-and-shut case. John isn't sure, however. For starters, there are too many people with a motive. Lord Fieldhurst's cousin, George Bertram, for instance - he's the heir, his wife is a greedy sort, and the Bertrams are on the edge of bankruptcy. Then there's the matter of a letter, written in French, which was "appropriated" from Lord Fieldhurst's study by a Foreign Office colleague soon after the murder. Could it hold a clue? And then there's Lady Julia, who is not only heartbreakingly beautiful, but also seems genuinely bewildered by all this.

It's a far cry from chasing pickpockets. Soon John must defend his investigation against suspicions that he's blinded by Lady Julia's beauty. And he can't seem to locate two important witnesses - the butler, who has disappeared, and a mysterious nocturnal visitor, who was apparently the last person to see Lord Fieldhurst alive. And what about Lord Rupert Latham, who obviously wants Julia in his bed? Could he have killed to get her there?

Lady Julia is drawn in to assist Pickett in uncovering the murderer. As they work together, a friendship develops, though this is in no way a historical romance. Readers need to understand this at the outset. Lady Julia is titled and beautiful; John has a slightly shady past. He admires her from afar, but romance eludes them. Approach this as a historical mystery. (There are slight hints, however, that John Pickett and Lady Julia might turn up again in the future.)

As a mystery, it's pretty well done. There are lots of red herrings, the killer isn't immediately apparent, and except for a predictable moment at the end where the killer explains everything, it's quite readable. My biggest problem is that the characters are pretty boring. Lady Julia is beautiful, etc. John can't stop thinking about her. But they barely interact beyond the confines of the murder case, and there just isn't any emotional intensity between them. She wants to know who killed her husband. He has a crush on her. That's as far as their relationship goes, which leaves the mystery to carry the book. It's a decent mystery, but the book smacked of lost opportunity. Even in a mystery, I want to care about the characters, and I didn't really care about these two.

Approach In Milady's Chamber with a view to spending some time in Regency London in the middle of a murder investigation, and you likely won't be disappointed. If you're looking for more than that, this book won't get you there.

--Cathy Sova


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