The Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders (2019)

Three years ago I read a book with the words A Laetitia Rodd Mystery on the cover, and I wrote:

I was sorry when the story was over; but I’m very glad that this is the first book of a series, and I’m looking forward to meeting Laetitia and her family and friends again.

I looked out for a second book but it didn’t appear and I had pretty much given up hope when I saw this book bearing those same words.

It was lovely to step back into a world and feel completely at home, even though it had been a long time since my last visit.

Laetitia Rodd was the widow of an archdeacon and, as she had limited means, she had taken lodgings with Mrs Mary Bentley, and they had become good friends.

Her younger brother, Frederick Tyson, was one of London’s most celebrated criminal barristers, and he had come up with a plan that would help both of them. He sometimes employed her to carry out ‘special investigations’, knowing that ladies could move in circles that gentlemen could not, and that they could find out things that no gentleman could ever find out for himself.

In 1851, a wealthy businessman made a request that would draw Mrs Rodd into a most unusual investigation. Jacob Welland was dying of consumption and he wanted somebody to find the brother he had not seen for fifteen years and to put a letter into his hands, in the hope that he could speak to him once more, to put things right between them after a long estrangement that he had come to realise was his fault.

The circumstances were unusual.

Joshua Welland was an Oxford scholar; quite brilliant, but terribly eccentric. After the schism with his brother, he had gradually withdrawn from his college. He had spent more and more time out in the countryside, until the day came when he failed to return. There had been a number if sightings over that years;  and a friend had once spotted him in a gypsy camp, where it was said that he was doing great work, and that when he made it public the world would marvel.

Mrs Rodd knew a young clergyman with a living in the area, his wife was a dear friend – and she had introduced them – so she made arrangements to pay them a visit.

That made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who always seemed to have a connection of some kind anywhere she might go; and, though the two ladies are generations apart and had very different characters, they had much in common. They were both able to apply skills they had gained in previous occupations to their investigations, to handle people well and find things out, to make logical deductions and then to act calmly and sensibly ….

Mrs Rodd investigated and searched carefully and, though she wasn’t able to put the letter into the missing man’s hands, she was able to return to London secure in the knowledge that it would reach him; and Jacob Welland, who was very frail and near the end of his life, was very happy with the results she achieved for him.

That wasn’t the end though; and when news of a suspicious death reached her, Mrs Rodd knew that she had to travel to Oxford and investigate again.

I won’t say too much about the story, but I will say that the plot had many interesting strands and that it was very well constructed. It was of its time, but it told a story that the great writers of the age could never have told.

I caught echoes of some of those authors, and I was particularly pleased when I spotted what I suspected were references to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire, and even more pleased when my expectations were subverted. I must mention the bishop’s wife, who was viewed with trepidation by many in the diocese. I thought of Mrs Proudie, but when Mrs Rodd asked this lady for assistance she was concerned and she was very helpful. As a friendship developed between the pair, she explained that she didn’t enjoy the role she was expected to play, but she loved her husband and played her part to the very best of her ability for his sake.

The story drew in a wonderfully rich range of characters and settings; and there was always something to hold my interest and something to make me think.

I identified the murderer just a little before the end of the book, but I didn’t work out everything, and I was very pleased to realise that this was the kind of book that had much more to its resolution than catching the criminal and explaining everything.

This second Laetitia Rodd mystery was a lovely progression from the first; and I hope that there will be many more.

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders (2016)

This book brings together a number of my literary loves:

  • Victorian England
  • Crime and detection
  • Literary allusions, and
  • A companion to take me through the story.

It’s the kind of recipe that it is easy get very wrong, and so I was delighted to find that Kate Saunders gets it very right.

Laetitia Rodd was the widow of an archdeacon, and, with limited means, she had taken lodgings with Mrs Mary Bentley, and they had become good friends.

She had been offered a home by her brother, Frederick Tyson. He was one of London’s most celebrated criminal barristers, but was is also the father of ten children, with another expected, and his wife was a little inclined to see Laetitia as a poor relation and to expect her to take on the role of nurse of governess rather often. She loved the children, she was sorry that she had none of her own, and so she made diplomatic excuses and moved out.

Fred understood, and he did what he could to help her. He knew that ladies could move in circles that gentlemen could not, and that they could find out things that no gentleman could ever find out for himself. And so, from time to time, he called on her services for work she described as ‘Management and Prevention of Scandal.’

9781408866887That role suited her well. She was what my mother would call ‘a people person’, and at fifty-two,  with many years as a minister’s wife behind her she had the life experience as well as the good sense to deal with whatever was required her. She missed her husband and was glad to be kept busy; and that she had a little more money to make life more comfortable for herself and her landlady was a lovely bonus.

I had been worried that this would feel a little contrived, but it didn’t at all. I was delighted that Fred had thought of a wonderful way to help both his sister and himself, and I was caught up with a wonderful band of characters, all so very well drawn, from the very start.

I was a little sorry that all of this had happened before the story began, and that Laetitia already had a number of cases behind her, but the story had such promise, I was so taken with Laetitia’s storytelling, that I was eager to keep reading and to find out what her next case involved.

Sir James Calderstone, head of the Calderstone family of Wishtide in Lincolnshire, had a problem that he wanted to be handled with tact and discretion. His only son, Charles, was set on marrying a lady who he believed was most unsuitable. Sir James wanted a wedding to be prevented at all costs, but he did not want his son to know what he was doing, and he did not want a breath of scandal.

Charles is independently wealthy, thanks to an inheritance from his mother’s side of the family, so he had no need of his father’s approval. Except that the lady in question – Helen Orme, a young widow who had arrived at Wishtide to teach those same two girls to speak Italian, before catching the eye of their brother – had said that she would not marry him without his family’s consent.

Laetitia was to travel to Wishtide as a new governess to ‘finish’ the two daughters of the house before they went out into society. And, by way of what her brother described as ‘a little genteel probing and perhaps a modicum of eavesdropping’, to uncover the past of which Helen would say very little.

She found that there was a great deal wrong in the Calderstone family, that there was a great deal that Sir James hadn’t told her, that there was a great family secret; and when she met Helen she liked her very much ….

I won’t say too much about the story, but I will say that it was very well constructed, that it drew in a wonderful range of characters and settings, and that I was always eager to keep turning the pages.

The literary allusions are very well done. If you spot them you’ll appreciate them, but if you don’t it won’t spoil the story at all.

There’s a nice streak of feminism; well planted in the story, because the characters and the events are firmly rooted in their own era

Those events escalated to a wonderfully dramatic ending.

If I was picky I would say that I would have liked a few less crime fiction tropes in that ending, but I don’t want to be picky, because I was engaged and entertained very well by this historical mystery.

I was sorry when the story was over; but I’m very glad that this is the first book of a series, and I’m looking forward to meeting Laetitia and her family and friends again.