A Useful Woman by Darcie Wilde
Berkley: May 3, 2016
Genre: Historical Mystery
Source: Free From Publisher
Rosalind Thorne is a woman that lives on the edges of the ton. She was once a debutante on the verge of making a match. That life was destroyed when Rosalind’s father abandoned her and her mother because of some shady business dealings. Due to her constrained circumstances Rosalind had to make herself useful, and in that, she maintains her position in society.
Normally, Rosalind helps woman organize parties or assists in a strategic retreat from prying eyes. The ladies of the ton depend on Rosalind to help them manage distressing situations. However, Rosalind has never once before had to manage the inconvenience appearance of a dead body. When the body of Jasper Aimesworth is found in the hallowed halls of Almack’s, Rosalind finds herself reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation. And this investigation uncovers some uncomfortable truths about her benefactress while forcing Rosalind to confront her past and acknowledge that she has changed in the years since she was a fresh-faced debutante.
A Useful Woman is a traditional Regency mystery. The historical detail incorporated into this novel is well done as is the dry wit employed in the author’s writing style. Rather than being a graphic, gruesome mystery, A Useful Woman instead focuses on the intricacies of social life for those of the upper classes. Rosalind as a character is unique because she operates on the fringes of society. She’s welcome, but Rosalind is no longer truly a part of the upper echelons. However, that proves to be a good thing in a murder investigation. Unlike Adam Harkness, the Bow Street Runner who is the principal officer investigating Jasper’s murder, Rosalind has connections in the ton. The majority of those in society are unwilling to even address the topic of the murder with Mr. Harkness, yet with one of their own, many are more than willing to indulge in a bit of gossip. The social positions of Mr. Harkness and Rosalind set the stage for what could be a profitable partnership and a bountiful premise for a mystery series.
What I didn’t quite like about A Useful Woman is that I found it a little bit slow to start. The traditional style and the focus on societal conventions, while interesting, didn’t always compel me to continue reading. I really enjoyed the characters of Rosalind and Mr. Harkness, but I was disappointed that Mr. Harkness didn’t enter the narrative until a third of the way into the book. The contrast between Rosalind and Mr. Harkness is fantastic and it made Rosalind a more interesting character because it was when she was interacting with him that Rosalind started to really consider her place in society and it’s advantages and disadvantages. Meeting Mr. Harkness also forces Rosalind to consider just how much she has changed over the years. Rosalind is no longer content to be a debutante focused only on marriage and social niceties; she has a brain and wants to use it. Fortunately, Mr. Harkness is happy to put Rosalind’s brain to work.
For those that were expecting romance in A Useful Woman (the author is a historical romance author, after all), you may be somewhat disappointed with the book. While there is a promise of a romance; Rosalind is confronted with her old suitor Devon Winterbourne and with the intriguing Bow Street Runner, Mr. Harkness. At the end of A Useful Woman it’s not clear where that romance is going to go with either character, but I certainly have developed firm opinions of where I want it to go. In my mind, one of these men treat Rosalind as an equal and one of them is determined to shelter Rosalind from the harsh realities of life (rolls eyes).
A Useful Woman is a promising series opener that introduces readers to a rich historical world and a practical and curious woman. I enjoyed the character of Rosalind immensely and I will certainly be back for more when the next installment comes around.
If you enjoyed the traditional style of A Useful Woman, I recommend checking out Ann Granger’s The Companion. This one is not a particularly graphic mystery but it does create a great sense of atmosphere.
For another Regency mystery try Catherine Llyod’s Death Comes to the Village. This is another traditionally written mystery, but it is set away from the confines of the busy city of London. I really enjoyed the banter between the heroine Lucy and the hero, Robert. The dynamic between the two of them only gets better with each book.
Changing up the historical time frame, my last recommendation is Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell. This one is set in the 1940s and features a socialite amateur sleuth, Amory Ames. The gentle tone and societal focus of A Useful Woman immediately put me in mind of Weaver’s series. See my full review here.