If you ever found Sherlock Holmes stories engaging, you’ll love Death by Silver. It’s wonderfully written, fresh, intelligent and highly entertaining.
In a Victorian London where magic (metaphysics, to use the professional term) is seamlessly integrated into society, quirky story possibilities are legion. Scott and Griswold create a fascinating world and a rich setting for magic and murder, where the stylistic characteristics of metaphysicians trained at Oxford are distinct from those of a Cambridge man. (And yes, women are capable of metaphysics, but the serious professional training is reserved for men, just as in banking or law.)
Ned Mathey is a young metaphysician just up from Oxford and labors to establish his practice. His old schoolmate Julian Lynes has become a private investigator of sorts. Together they form a duo more complex and nuanced than the famous Baker Street men.
Lynes is the more Saturnine of the two, and in a lovely echo of Holmes’ fondness for the needle he is inclined to use enchantments as recreational drugs as often as not. Mathey is far from just a Watsonian, more physical, foil. He’s a smart, skilled, multi-dimensional principal in his own right.
These two originally forged their friendship at Saints Thomas, a venerable public school with elaborate traditions of humiliation and cruelty for new boys. The flashbacks to those soul-crushing horrors were entirely plausible to this reader, and horrifying.
Mathey is hired by Edgar Nevett—whose son Victor was Mathey’s special tormentor during his years at Sts Thomas—to remove curses from the family silver. Days later, Edgar Nevett is killed by a heavy candlestick enchanted to fall on his head as soon as he sat at his desk.
Mathey and Lynes team up to investigate and in the process renew their awkward sexual relationship from school days. Given all that they’d already been through, the angst surrounding their “wants me/wants me not” wore a bit thin for me, but in the context of Victorian mores it was perfectly understandable. Social ruin and worse awaited any who caused a scandal—the love that dare not speak its name was tolerated as long as the name remained unspoken and its presence remained veiled in decorum.
It appears someone in the Nevett family committed the crime, but when Victor Nevett confesses it’s a shock. As reluctant as he is to admit it, Mathey concludes his boyhood torturer is innocent of this crime, and with his companion’s help sets out to find the real killer. Who is Nevett protecting with his false confession?
The investigation on which Mathey and Lynes embark is dangerous and intricate—people connected to the case die or disappear, rapport with Scotland Yard blossoms and erodes.
As they proceed, the hard realities of class in Victorian life become part of the story: hopeless children are brought to a mission to be trained as domestics, then placed in privileged homes as servants, the best life they could imagine. What servant in that situation would dare contradict a statement or instruction from one of the household?
The story’s pace is that uniquely delicious mix of haste and slow time that a Victorian setting provides: a break-neck cab ride, messages by return post and telegrams interspersed with messenger boys fetching ale and pies, dinners at gentlemen’s clubs and appointments set for Tuesday next.
This is a beautifully crafted story, full of wit, style, and originality. There are spells with temporal components and conditional triggers, such as spells with delayed release of poison. There’s Urtica Mordax, a big-personality carnivorous vine that Lynes keeps in his chambers and nourishes with tidbits of ham. There are mechanical automata depicting alarming impropriety, from Zeus taking Ganymede to a male clerk fitting a lady’s shoe and seeing far too much leg. This story is a smorgasbord of invention.
When you are ready to treat yourself to an intelligent, engaging mystery set in a fascinating alternate-but-familiar reality, read this book. You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker