Tea lovers, take heart at a new mystery novel that will transport you to a tea garden in a Himalayan valley near Darjeeling, India. It is Dark Road to Darjeeling by American author Deanna Raybourn. Grab yourself a tasty cup of freshly steeped Darjeeling tea first, though! This novel will whet your tea tastebuds (and your mystery appetite).

Unfortunately for me, this novel is the fourth in a series by Raybourn that features the impetuous and aristocratic Lady Julia Grey. If you haven’t read the first three novels yet, read them before diving into this one so that events in this book won’t spoil things for you. (It was a bit impractical for me to buy the first three books, read them, and then read this one. Oh, well.)

For me, the book started a bit contrived and slow. Some of this was necessary to get readers up to speed on things. Further on, the pace quickens as Raybourn leads you (as any good mystery author does) down a few false paths, only to show you a chapter later that the truth lies in another direction or to open another possibility to you. This is a writer’s device that holds your interest and keeps you from guessing too quickly what is really going on. Just when I thought I had it figured out…

By the time the solution to the main mystery is revealed a few others have popped up, another interest-holding device. There is also a sprinkling of the author’s view of things like the importance of having some feeling of purpose in one’s life. Another is the frustration experienced by younger offspring of an aristocrat when the eldest is the one who will inherit yet they, due to their lineage, are not encouraged to seek some useful pursuits (what we these days call a career).

The author shows some knowledge of tea and has clearly done her research, mentioning “flowering” teas in one scene and oolongs in another. She also uses such terms as “flush” (fresh growth on the tea bushes that is harvested and processed for sale). Her descriptions of the valley and the main mountain of the Himalayas that watches over it is vivid enough to transport you from your comfy chair to that land. She describes the deft actions of the tea pickers in an almost reverent way. The best feature is how the valley had been transformed by a man with guts and vision from one full of poisonous plants to a place where people thrived.

A down note is Lady Julia Grey (née “March”), who doesn’t seem mature and interesting enough for a single novel, let alone a series. Halfway through this book I got fatigued by her childish, overly headstrong manner. An aristocratic upbringing cannot be totally to blame. After all, other mystery heroines have been from wealthy backgrounds where they expected to have their way, but they have come across much more maturely than Julia. Add to this the overly dramatic scenes that take place a couple of times between her and her husband of nine months, private detective Nicholas Brisbane. It’s a formula for romantic fiction but not more serious mystery fiction. There are moments when I laughed that I am sure are not what the author intended. There are also moments when I was just plain annoyed. How many times can an author use the same terms to describe a husband and wife’s bedroom activities? In this case, more than I cared to read.

Overall, the March family (Lady Julia’s kin) in this book is a far cry from the March family in an icon of American Literature: Little Women. The sense of family unity is missing. (That’s the English Lit Major in me talking.)

Another tiresome item is the continual portrayal of Americans as brash, uncouth, and overbearing, like her one American character. One cannot say here that the author is not American, so such a cliché and underserved portrayal is expected. Raybourn was born and raised in Texas and now lives in Virginia.

For a large part, the lush surroundings and the thrill of getting vicariously to experience life in a tea garden makes up for these minor shortcomings. The author’s skill at weaving a mystery also makes this worthwhile reading. I must confess that I did not guess the true villain before Raybourn had revealed it. There were some other surprises along the way and a few expected items (for the time period of this novel – 1889). Not to brag, but there were also a few times when the author tried to lead me astray and did not.

You’ll find yourself so caught up in the events that you’ll finish half the book before you know it and the other half not long afterwards. Don’t forget that fresh cuppa tea first, though!

Disclaimer: I received a copy from the marketing firm for this review.

Make sure to check out A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!

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