In the mid-nineteenth century, a fire that destroys the east wing of their manor drives Lord Danvers and his wife Tonia to make a long-postponed visit to Danvers’ younger brother, Frederick, in York. Frederick has made a plea for Danvers’ help with an unspecified problem, and Danvers assumes the young clergyman has gotten into some kind of scrape. Far from that, though, the problem turns out to be Frederick’s asylum in the midst of York’s slums, where he and his staff provide meals and medical attention to expectant women of the streets. Frederick is worried about several suspicious deaths among his patients in which he suspects poisoning. One visit to the asylum leads Danvers and Tonia to serve there as volunteers, and another suspicious death leads Danvers to check the various tonics the attendants administer. His initial findings are inconclusive, but he perseveres.
Concurrently, Danvers and Tonia observe the historical trial of William Dove for poisoning his wife, and Tonia takes an interest in the placement of a slum family’s children in a school that is supposed to teach them letters and a trade. Her interest arouses her suspicions that the children are being mistreated—or worse.
Both investigations lead through a tangle of contradictory facts to a climactic discovery of true horrors.
Donna Fletcher Crow brings to this mystery detailed research into actual crimes of the nineteenth century and combines her Dickensian subject matter with a polished writing style reminiscent of Georgette Heyer. She effectively captures the speech and mannerisms of the period, and she never lapses into the modern attitudes and expressions that mar so many of today’s historical novels. The result is a delightful period-piece mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the final pages.