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The Law and the Lady
By Wilkie Collins

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The Law and the Lady

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The Law and the Lady
By Wilkie Collins
Thorndike Press: (1875)
Large Print Perennial Bestsellers
ISBN: 0-7862-6250-8
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - June 11, 2004

Wilkie Collins is universally acknowledged as one of, if not the, father of the detective - mystery genre. In 1875, with the publication of The Law and the Lady, he also became one of the first authors to place a woman in the role of a lead detective. Although not as well known as his novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, The Law and the Lady is an excellent example of Collins' literary prowess and of the 'new' Victorian thriller / sensational fiction that had become the vogue in the late 1800's. This is also a story that is not only rich in ambiance and peopled with realistic characters, but it also ingeniously plotted.

In this sensational mystery, Valeria Woodville finds herself in the awkward situation of having to try to prove that her husband did not kill his first wife. Told in the first person, The Law and the Lady is narrated by the story's detective, Valeria. The story opens with Valeria's marriage to Eustace Woodville. Her idyllic dreams of marriage are quickly shattered when she discovers that her husband has lied to her. His real name is Eustace Macallen. His first wife died under suspicious circumstances, and Eustace was charged with her murder. It was claimed that he had poisoned her by putting arsenic in her tea. He escaped hanging simply because there was not enough evidence to prove conclusively that he had murdered his wife. Nonetheless, it was widely believed that he was, indeed, guilty of the crime, and his name was tainted throughout England by the charge. Unable to escape the scandal, he changed his name and started a new life, a life into which he ensnared Valeria.

Should the truth of his past become common knowledge, Valeria will be tarnished, by association, with the same scandal that had tainted Eustace's life. When she learns of his lies, and the predicament that he has placed her in, he runs away again. Ashamed and guilt ridden, he flees to the continent (mainland Europe), leaving her alone to try to salvage the shreds of her reputation. Surprisingly, despite Eustace's deceit, Valeria is sure that he is an innocent man, and sets out to prove it. Doing so will not only clear her husband's name, but will also help to mend their social standing - something that was very important in Victorian society.

Collins masterfully follows Valeria's journey as she uncovers the threads of her husband's secrets, and then once she knows the truth, as she tracks down the evidence that establishes the truth about his first wife's death. Throughout, Valeria is beset by false starts, red herrings, and misdirections that make it difficult for her, and the reader, to really know what happened - that is until the very end when she finally solves the mystery. Along the way, Collins also introduces Valeria to a host of peculiar, Dickens' like characters, including the legless, and deranged, Misserimus Dexter who is attended to by his cousin Ariel.

In addition to being an entertaining example of an amateur detective at work, The Law and the Lady also offers the reader some telling insights into Victorian society and the strict roles to which men and women where assigned. It also illustrations the machinations that a woman had to go through in order to engage in a pursuit, even on an amateur level, that society deems to be unsuitable for a woman. Overall, The Law and the Lady is an excellent mystery that is a must for Collins' fans as well as anyone interested in Victorian literature, or who is simply looking for a cozy mystery to curl up with on a rainy day.

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