Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon

Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon, 2003

I've written at length on this blog about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, an incredible blend of historical fiction, fantasy, adventure and romance. There aren't many authors that I enjoy as much as Gabaldon--or series that I enjoy as much as the Outlander books--so reading the Lord John Grey series, an Outlander spinoff, was a no-brainer.

Lord John Grey is a minor character in the Outlander novels, although popular with fans. A British officer with a hidden sexual orientation and an unrequited passion for Jamie Fraser, Grey is a constant presence in the main series, and one I've always enjoyed. His spinoff series, unlike the main Outlander books, is focused more on mystery and crime than romance, with Grey in the role of eighteenth-century detective.

In Private Matter (which takes place roughly during the events of the main series' third volume Voyager), Lord John finds himself entangled in two seemingly separate mysteries. On the one hand, the Army has assigned him to the case of a suspected spy's brutal murder. On the other, he finds himself forced to investigate his cousin's fiance, who he thinks is cheating on her. Little does he suspect that his two problems may be one and the same.

Gabaldon's signature is usually the enormous scope of her work, but with this novel, she demonstrates her ability to work within a smaller canvas, which she does admirably, while still providing readers with the wealth of tactile detail that is her trademark.

As a whole, I enjoyed the novel more on its own merits as a standalone historical mystery than as another piece of the Outlander saga. Despite a few small references to Jamie and Claire Fraser (and, of course, the presence of Lord John), Private Matter feels very much like its own animal. I doubt that many unenlightened readers would be aware that it was a spinoff at all.

Of course, for those in the know, it's easy to recognize Gabaldon behind Lord John's narration. There's the effortless evocation of the time period, the colorful characters and, natch, the endless sex (readers will learn far more about eighteenth-century brothels, both heterosexual and otherwise, than they ever wanted to know). Gabaldon seamlessly mixes the historical setting with her own quick wit, which helps lighten up the novel significantly:

"On the other hand, whoever stamped on his face didn't like him much," Tom completed the thought shrewdly. "That was no accident, me lord."

"No, it wasn't," Grey agreed dryly. "That was done after death, not in the frenzy of the moment."

Tom's eyes went quite round.

"However do you know that? Me lord," he added hastily.

"You looked closely at the heelprint? Several of the nailheads had broken through the skin, and yet there was no blood extravasated."

Tom gave him a look of mingled bewilderment and suspicion, obviously suspecting Grey had made up the word upon the moment for the express purpose of tormenting him, but merely said, "Oh?"
---(page 60)

The novel's setting and characters are completely top-notch, as I would expect from Gabaldon. Even the most minor details are just right, from the smells of the streets to the the textures of various fabrics. Her characters, as always, are rich, poignant and vivid. Lord John is an interesting protagonist with a lot of intriguing inner conflict; I can certainly understand why the series is centered around him.

The actual plot is a little weaker. It starts out very strongly, but ends with a whimper rather than a bang. Gabaldon is good at keeping the story engaging; her problem is making it all fit together in a satisfying way. By the end, the tangle is so ridiculously complicated that it feels like a bit of a cheat and there's no decisive climax.

Good mysteries are hard to write and they require at least one "Ah-ha!" moment during the unraveling, a moment that Private Matter sadly lacks. Not to say that the solution doesn't make sense, it's just not too satisfying.

Still, the book is extremely likable and entertaining, if not earth-shatteringly good. Gabaldon's writing habits tend to be slapdash and it shows. Had the plotting been streamlined a bit, Private Matter could have been an excellent novel rather than just a fun historical mystery. For ravenous Outlander fans, it's a tempting morsel. For mystery fans, it's a diverting read. And hey, any book that can combine transvestite prostitutes, bizarre cures for syphilis, military spycraft and a flamboyant German with a plumed helmet can't be all bad.

NEXT UP: Possibly The Brothers Karamazov. Possibly the next Julia Spencer-Fleming novel, I Shall Not Want. Hmmm. Which do you think I'll finish first?

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