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by Catherine Shaw
Allison and Busby, January 2005
288 pages
ISBN: 0749083085

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

FLOWERS STAINED WITH MOONLIGHT is the second of Catherine Shaw's Vanessa Duncan series, which began last year with her promising debut novel THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM. It's 1892, four years after the close of the last book, and our heroine, a mathematically gifted but under-challenged schoolmistress, is still engaged to genial Cambridge mathematician Arthur Weatherburn.

He doesn't yet make enough money to marry Vanessa, but that's only the least of her problems. Mrs Bryce-Fortescue, whose young, recently-widowed daughter Sylvia Granger is suspected of the murder of her (Sylvia's) husband, has asked Vanessa to prove Sylvia's innocence.

The late Mr Granger is not much lamented by anybody, least of all Sylvia and her self-assured, devoted, and unmarried friend and housemate Camilla. In fact, almost everyone who has ever met Sylvia agrees that she didn't want to marry Granger -- or, apparently, anyone else. Could this timid 'slip-of-a-girl' really have done it? Alone? And what secret is she and Camilla trying to hide from Vanessa -- and everyone else? Shaw whisks Vanessa from Cambridge to Paris to find out.

This novel isn't perfect, but the elements that are written well are written really well, making it worth reading and strengthening the series as a whole. I didn't find it a suspenseful page-turner, for a reason I'll explain presently, but the games that Shaw plays with language, character, and world-creation are worth reading slowly and thinking through at leisure.

In FLOWERS STAINED WITH MOONLIGHT, Shaw comes closer to showing Vanessa's twin sister Dora, the correspondent to whom the content of both epistolary novels is addressed. We still don't get to meet Dora, but characters besides Vanessa do, and Vanessa cannot solve the mystery without her help. As the invisible presence of both books, Dora fits perfectly into the thematic world of Shaw's fiction, where math subtly becomes metaphor in whimsical ways reminiscent of Shaw's inspiration Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). She and Vanessa are a pair of parallel lines: identical in appearance, they glide through the text side by side, legible only with reference to each other, yet never cross each other's paths.

A possible downside is that the Granger mystery is very easy to solve. The novel's epigraph, from which the title is excerpted, is from a poem written in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas. The titular image of the anthropomorphic "flowers . . . stained with moonlight, or with shades / Of nature's most wilful moods" and the poem's much widely known final quatrain suggest which character killed Granger and why. Even without the epigraph, the solution is obvious, but Vanessa, an otherwise perceptive woman, is still in the dark on page 274.

Still, however, Shaw's imagination combines the languages of words and numbers, creating a rich vocabulary particularly appropriate to a genre in which the main conflict is always how to solve for the unknown. I understand that the third and fourth volumes in series are forthcoming, and look forward to the multiplication of the Duncan chronicles.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, May 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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