The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart

The premise of Barnaby Mayne drew me in when I first read about it, pre-publication–a mystery set amongst the curio cabinets of an 18th-century English collector of natural history. So I was elated to get my hands on a library copy in December–perfect timing for a cozy mystery.

Cecily Kay, our amateur botanist turned even more amateur detective, is visiting Sir Barnaby to do research amongst his specimens. During a tour of the eponymous cabinets, Lady Kay’s host is stabbed to death. Due to the timing of the murder, the shadow of suspicion falls within the small community of aristocrats who, like Mayne, fill their houses with curiosities and commonplaces of the natural world.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the intriguing world of these collectors, principally men, absorbed with amassing and cataloging natural phenomena, ranging from exotic impossibilities (i.e., a mummified mermaid) to the skeletons of common field mice. Added to this are rich descriptions, layered storytelling, and a complicated mystery that keeps the reader guessing. Even digressions that we suspected might be rabbit trails and red herrings held our attention, laden as they were with fascinating period detail.

We completed the book hoping to spend more time with Hart’s engaging, multidimensional characters. Fortunately, Hart’s conclusion leads us to believe we will have the opportunity.

I haven’t investigated Hart’s historical accuracy. But she conveys the aura of an author who has done her research and knows her subject. This impression is based in part on the books that led me to Barnaby Mayne–Hart’s Li Du novels, set in China, also in the 1700s. Click here for a brief endorsement of the first book in the series, Jade Dragon Mountain. For a discussion of book two, The White Mirror, check back next week.

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  1. Pingback: The White Mirror, by Elsa Hart | Birds' Books

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