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Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart
Minotaur, 2020. 341 pp. $27

Lady Cecily Kay doesn’t quite understand why her husband, consul in Smyrna for His Majesty James II, has dispatched her back to England, where she can cause no further trouble. After all, if Cecily didn’t point out the oddities in her husband’s financial ledgers, who would? And why wouldn’t he want the benefit of her sharp eyes?

But despite her humiliating departure from the conjugal nest, Lady Kay’s about to have more adventure than she ever could in Smyrna, and in much the same fashion, asking questions that men don’t wish to answer. (Since it’s 1699, London men expect women to listen like donkeys waiting to have their hind legs talked off, but the devil with that.) So when Cecily tours the famous, coveted collection of Sir Barnaby Mayne, a cornucopia of the natural and folkloric worlds, and someone knifes the collector to death, it’s incumbent on Lady Kay to act. Not only do curiosity and scientific rigor demand no less; justice must be served.

My favorite collector, Joseph Banks, as painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1773. President of the Royal Society for more than forty years, Banks established Kew Gardens as the leading botanical collection in the world (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Dinley, Sir Barnaby’s assistant, has confessed to the killing and run away. But anyone with an open mind who’s met him for five minutes would believe he’s innocent. If ever there were a naturalist who cringed and blushed over the red-in-tooth-and-claw aspects of his passion, it would be Dinley—and besides, what motive could he have had? However, since Sir Barnaby was a gentleman of title and property, as are most of the visitors on the tour that day, whereas Dinley’s a nobody, a confession and flight are enough evidence to hang him.

Nobody takes kindly to Lady Kay’s inquiries as to the time of the murder, who was where in the house then, and what may be deduced from such observations. As we’ve seen, though, subtlety’s not her strong point. She does have one ally, however, a childhood friend from a lower social class, who’s temporarily residing in the Mayne manse, working as an illustrator for the collector’s intended catalog. But it takes a while for Cecily to trust Meacan, who, like Cecily, is less than forthcoming—a nice touch, there—and the two never do quite get over their competition to solve the mystery, another nice touch.

They also have different approaches, since Meacan, who’s gone through two husbands, isn’t above using flirtation to surmount an obstacle. I like that too, especially because Hart shows a light hand, not playing that too far. Unfortunately for the two sleuths, however, by the time they decide to let their hair down and join forces, Lady Mayne, the imperious, estranged widow, shows up. The investigation promptly hits a wall, namely, the prohibition to meddle in the constabulary’s business.

Hart constructs her mystery with consummate skill and, as you’ve probably guessed by now, deployed “no—and furthermore” to great advantage. There are many suspects, each with plausible secrets to protect, and the narrative openly reveals all the facts. But unless you’re a better detective than I, you won’t guess the killer’s identity or much else, which keeps the pages turning and offers a satisfying conclusion.

Along the way, Hart casts a keen eye on everything from late-seventeenth-century foppishness to attitudes toward the occult to collecting as blood sport to foodways — imagine, to eat any vegetable raw, especially a radish! Consider this description of Sir Barnaby himself:

Though age had made him frail, thinning his cheeks to translucence and carving furrows around his eyes, the authority projected over the space around him was unambiguous. His shoulders, encased in black velvet, appeared broader than they were, as if they were approaching breadth and volume from the darkness surrounding them. He wore a gray wig that rose high above his brow and fell in luxurious curls down his chest, framing the pristine lace that cascaded from his collar.

Another delight in these pages is the humor. For example, Hart offers us a would-be collector with more money than brains, a sycophant whom everyone quickly learns to avoid. Lady Mayne is a hoot, stiffer alive than her late husband dead, convinced, with barely repressed shudders, that collecting is a godless obsession. But my favorite is a Russian general, whose verbal duels with Lady Kay are hilarious, further evidence in her eyes of what blockheads men can be.

If I have one reservation about this novel, it’s the climactic scene, which invokes more than a couple tropes. But maybe it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, which would fit. The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is a delight.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.