The historical novels I enjoy most are the ones that have a wonderful historical “sense.” The authors have spent a lot of time on research and obviously enjoy re-creating their particular window on the past. Of course, if you add the death of a beautiful young woman, you have the makings of an interesting mystery as well. All of these elements come together in The Duke’s Agent by British author Rebecca Jenkins. The book is set in a northern English valley town called Woolbridge in 1811 where the varied society includes the gentry, hardworking tenant farmers and artisans, and a burgeoning industrial complex of owners and workers.
The Duke’s agent is Frederick Raif Jarrett, a soldier who has spent the previous ten years fighting for England in several locations around the world, with his last posting in Portugal and Spain. Jarrett has risen to the rank of Captain and uses his artistic skills as a Riding Officer, making maps and spying behind enemy lines. Injured in Spain, Jarrett is sent home to England to recover. Bored in his recovery, Jarrett quickly accepts the assignment from his patron, the Duke of Penrith, to travel north to the Duke’s property near Woolbridge. The Duke’s previous steward had died and the Duke now needs a representative to sort out the problems of his northern estate.
When Jarrett arrives, he finds several mysteries waiting for him — who stole the dead steward’s account books, what happened to all the money the steward had stolen, and who is the Tallyman, a local bully and possible killer? While Jarrett strives to find answers to these questions, he encounters a host of interesting characters, including the neighborhood poacher, the elderly eccentric spinster, and an elegant and intelligent young woman, Miss Lonsdale. Before Jarrett finds any answers, though, a local girl is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. Since Jarrett is an outsider and the girl was found near his lodging, Jarrett is accused of the girl’s death by the magistrate, Quentin Raistrick. It takes the arrival of the Duke’s son and Jarrett’s cousin, the Marquess of Earewith, to confirm Jarrett’s identity and set him free.
Once free, Jarrett works to uncover the truth regarding Sally’s death as well as the first questions regarding the Duke’s late steward. There are dangerous undercurrents in Woolbridge as mill owners buy machines that put the individual weavers out of business. Jarrett’s inquiries seem to lead him to agents of magistrate Raistrick, a self-made and charismatic man. Jarrett must walk a fine line between the different factions — the gentry, the discontented workers, the mill owners — as he searches for answers.
In addition to the wonderful historical detail in the book, I also enjoyed the character of the protagonist, Jarrett. Jarrett is a bit of a mystery himself since the exact nature of his connection to the Duke is never revealed. He has a quiet dignity and a strong sense of duty and justice as he goes about his job. He also struggles with adapting to civilian life and with decisions regarding his future. Should he stay in the army or should he continue as the Duke’s agent in Woolbridge, where the intriguing Miss Lonsdale also resides?
If you enjoy The Duke’s Agent, you can read about the further adventures of Jarrett in the sequel Death of a Radical.
Check the WRL catalog for The Duke’s Agent.