Widow of an archdeacon, Laetitia Rodd may have lost her social standing and comfortable lifestyle, but is not one to wallow in regrets. Instead, she relishes the opportunity to undertake investigations for her wealthy barrister brother, not only for the chance to earn a little but also for the intriguing situations in which they involve her, such as the chance to reunite the wealthy but terminally ill Jacob Welland with his brother Joshua, the “wandering scholar” of the title with whom he fell out too long ago “over a woman”. Before she manages to solve the mystery surrounding Joshua, she is distracted by the need to prove the innocence of two acquaintances accused of a murder of which she cannot believe them to be guilty, although the evidence against them is troubling.
This modern take on a Victorian detective story reminds me of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White”. With its meandering plot loaded with often larger than life characters, it is an entertaining if lightweight read, made worthwhile by a strong sense of place and time, and a well-developed, sympathetic narrator in the form of Laetitia Rodd. She has a wry sense of humour, not taking herself too seriously. Although bound by the conventions and religious piety of the 1850s, she is fundamentally open-minded, admittedly as imagined by a C21 rather than C19 writer. When Inspector Blackbeard apologises for bringing her a cup of tea bought from a “not very genteel” stall, she has the sense to drink it because she is thirsty. If a servant suddenly inherits money which raises him into a different social class, she tries to help him to integrate rather than treat him with disdain. Similarly, if friends commits adultery or even murder, she tries to understand what led them to do so. While remaining essentially conventional and devout, she is open to other points of view, and to questioning her own.
The plot is tied up quite neatly at the end, leaving me with only a couple of minor queries. I like the way the author has brought together events both real and fictional from the period to weave into her plot: the story of the “poor Oxford scholar” in Mathew Arnold’s poem, who “tired of knocking at preferment’s door” went off to live with the gipsies where he imagines, like Joshua, that he can live according to the “ancient rhythms of passing seasons, outside the pressures of the modern world”; the ingrained social inequality of Victorian society for which a Tennyson poem, “Locksley Hall” provides a recurring metaphor, “every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys”; the notorious murderer Eugene Aram, portrayed in Bulwer-Lytton’s 1832 novel as a romantic hero who killed to obtain the money he needed to get on in the world, justifying his crime because it enabled him to do good. So, this engaging detective yarn has an authentic, serious core, in raising complex moral dilemmas.