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by Nev March
Minotaur, July 2022
352 pages
ISBN: 1250855039

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In PERIL AT THE EXPOSITION, Nev March's latest Dupree Detective Agency adventure, Diana Framji and Captain Jim Agnihotri, both originally of India, and now known as Mrs. and Mr. James O'Trey, are trying to make a new life in 1890s America. Diana would like to open a bakery. Jim is working as a detective for the Dupree agency, based in Boston. They are delighted by their neighbors, a melting pot of recent immigrants with life stories, and reasons for emigrating, as vibrant and challenging as their own. Diana also likes a new invention to which she's just been exposed: the telephone. All is going well until a mysterious missive calls Jim out to Chicago. There's been a murder, and someone is hoarding a chemical substances called "ballistite": a propellant used in explosives. In Chicago, the World's Fair is about to open. Is someone, or some group, planning to bomb this event of the century? If so, who, why, and can Jim stop it? Diana decides to go to Chicago herself, to catch up with Jim and to solve the mystery.

Diana is a friendly, compelling narrator. A "Zoroastrian Persian" (Parsi) woman from Bombay, she had to defy her family and its traditions to marry the Indian-Irish, non-Parsi Jim. Sometimes her backstory seems much more interesting than her current activities, but March keeps the action churning round her heroine, dragging her into conflicts about labor and unionization that are well-researched and fascinating. The issues at stake in the conspiracy are much larger than the conspiracy itself.

Notably, Jim is inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and Diana tries to act as his Watson, learning deduction while she documents his moves and, yes, loves him. The novel is peppered with fun tongue-in-cheek references to Sherlock Holmes canonical adventures. For instance, Diana recalls a traumatic childhood experience with a snake very reminiscent of Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," but she and her sister, unlike Doyle's sororal heroines, survive the encounter.

Diana's partner in investigation is a girl she hires as a lady's maid, Abigail, who turns out to have been born a Mr. A.B. Gale, and is, essentially, a trans woman. Diana easily acclimates to Abigail's gender identity, using the appropriate female pronouns as they dodge Chicago criminals together. On the one hand, this is heartwarming and fun. On the other, the ease with which Abigail inhabits her identity in spite of her surroundings and Diana's immediate acceptance of that identity obscure the very real struggles that trans people must have endured in the centuries before they could identify themselves as such. A far better exploration of 1890s Chicago -- World's Fair and all - that confronts the terrifying and exhilarating lives of Victorian LGBT people is Aden Polydoros's gritty, lyrical THE CITY BEAUTIFUL, to which I kept finding myself comparing PERIL AT THE EXPOSITION. However, if you're not looking for grit, lyricism, or sociological complexity; if what you want is a historical romp that acknowledges the diversity of 1890s Chicago and the interconnectedness of the Victorian world, PERIL AT THE EXPOSITION will prove a very satisfying read--and you'll want to know what adventures Diana and Jim have next.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, April 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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