The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart
Published by Minotaur Books on August 4, 2020
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Historical Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: eARC
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four-half-stars

London, 1703. In a time when the old approaches to science coexist with the new, one elite community attempts to understand the world by collecting its wonders. Sir Barnaby Mayne, the most formidable of these collectors, has devoted his life to filling his cabinets. While the curious-minded vie for invitations to study the rare stones, bones, books, and artifacts he has amassed, some visitors come with a darker purpose.

For Cecily Kay, it is a passion for plants that brings her to the Mayne house. The only puzzle she expects to encounter is how to locate the specimens she needs within Sir Barnaby's crowded cabinets. But when her host is stabbed to death, Cecily finds the confession of the supposed killer unconvincing. She pays attention to details--years of practice have taught her that the smallest particulars can distinguish a harmless herb from a deadly one--and in the case of Sir Barnaby's murder, there are too many inconsistencies for her to ignore.

To discover the truth, Cecily must enter the world of the collectors, a realm where intellect is distorted by obsession and greed. As her pursuit of answers brings her closer to a killer, she risks being given a final resting place amid the bones that wait, silent and still, in the cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart is an old-fashioned mystery, set in early 18th century London. History is poised between the advent of modern science and the superstitions and fantasy of previous eras. Collectors – almost always men – searched the world for things, animal remains, plants, rocks, oddities to showcase in their homes. Or paid others to do the searching for them. They wanted prestige, social status, as much if not more than they wanted to further knowledge. They guarded their treasures, competed with other collectors, and spent much of their time arguing over provenance and ownership.

Barnaby Mayne is one of England’s greatest collectors, and his house a confusing, claustrophobic place where anything, even murder, can happen. Honestly, as much as i love funky museums, the Mayne collection seems a bit creepy. Lady Cecily Kay has come to the house to view its plants. There she meets a woman she had known as a child, Meacon, a gifted illustrator.  Together they take on the question of who killed Barnaby Mayne (with a knife, in the study). They do it to save the man who has been falsely accused and also, I think, out of curiosity and a desire to know. Cecily is determined and her social class gives her at least some standing in the male-dominated world of the time, but she’s oblivious to the dangers she is inviting with her question. Meacon is smart, observant, and has connections with some of the perhaps less desirable, but useful men in London. Together, they make a formidable team. They obviously renew their friendship, but it is awkward as first. They have grown up as very different women, but it’s those differences that help them.

The mystery itself was well-done. We had several clues and a few suspects. There are some moments of danger for the women and a twist that I rather enjoyed. This London is dark and dreary and dangerous, but it’s also a small town. All the collectors know each other and each other’s ambitions, they have the same sources, attend the same events.

There’s a hint at the end that there might be a sequel. I’m certainly hoping so.

About Elsa Hart

Elsa Hart is the author of three acclaimed mystery novels set in eighteenth-century China. The most recent, City of Ink, was one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2018. The daughter of a journalist, Elsa was born in Rome and spent much of her childhood abroad, attending international schools in Moscow and Prague. She is drawn to stories about travelers throughout history and likes to put her own characters in places that are unfamiliar to them.

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