Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Balmoral Nude

What do Queen Victoria, a pre-Raphaelite artist, the Rt. Hn.ble William Ewart Gladstone and the murder of a gin-shop courtesan have in common?

In The Balmoral Nude (1990), by Carolyn Coker, the connections add up to a delightful stew of art, history, murder and mystery.

It seems Cecil T. Fetherston was a one-time tutor of art to Queen Victoria. He also happened to fall in love with a prostitute called Emma. Mr. Gladstone, who was known to proselytize among the less morally fortunate in Victoria's time, has the unhappy luck to witness jealousy get the better of Mr. Fetherston.

When Fetherston is hanged for Emma's murder, he leaves behind a tantalizing cache of pen-and-ink drawings.

Deborah Foley, the twentieth-century heir to the Fetherston Gallery, dangles the drawings in front of several parties more than eager to own them; and the result, as one might guess, is a nasty series of murder. 

Miss Lemon found herself enjoying this novel in spite of herself. None of the characters are particularly likable. There's an obnoxious couple from Phoenix, Arizona, who buy up British artefacts and otherwise spend their lives making excuses for their spoilt and slatternly daughter, unfortunately called 'India.' Worse, they've just bought a title at auction and now insist on being addressed as Lord and Lady Smith-Hamilton.

Deborah Foley, the owner of the Fetherston Gallery is a vague and single-minded woman, whose chief interest is her American husband, Clayton, whose occupation is modeling for Harris Tweeds and whose demeanour and appearance made Miss Lemon think constantly of the Marlboro Man. Deborah's brother, Arthur, evokes the prodigal Sebastian Flyte, from Brideshead Revisited, but he seems to lack all of Sebastian's charms.

There's an uptight and ambitious gallery manager, called Sybil Forbes; and an arts reporter, called Mandy Carruthers, famous for her plunging necklines; and a writer, called Malcolm Putney, who happens to be publishing a book on the Queen Victoria, William Gladstone, Cecil Fetherston connection, and who would stoop as low as required to get his hands on the drawings to illustrate his otherwise unremarkable work.

But for all these grasping characters, The Balmoral Nude is neatly written, with sharp characterization, snappy dialogue and evidence of the author's keen sense of just what to leave out to keep the pace zinging along. Best of all is the late-to-arrive Inspector Chadwick of Chipping Codsbury, who does little more than lurk. And in the process, of course, he catches himself a murderer.

The Balmoral Nude is long out of print. But should her readers see a copy in a second-hand shop, Miss Lemon's advice would be to snap it up. It's perfect holiday reading.


  1. Sounds like a good candidate for "forgotten book friday"

  2. Yes -- Miss Lemon must get in on this!

  3. I'll certainly pick one up if I see a copy!