Thu. Jul 18th, 2024
A Bitter Remedy

by Alis Hawkins

I’m a sucker for a historical mystery with an angry female lead. Can’t resist. Must read immediately. Fortunately, I discovered this series of books with exactly this type of sleuth on offer.

Rhiannon ‘Non’ Vaughan is auditing some lectures at Oxford in 1881. Women aren’t allowed to attend all lectures, write exams or attain degrees, but Non is determined to do as much as she can nonetheless. Non is a fearsome young Welsh woman studying the Welsh language and it chafes that she has to be ‘respectful’ and ‘respectable’ while women’s presence at Oxford is so tenuous. She’s determined to show that she’s just as capable as her male peers, but she’s perpetually made to be small. And boy, she hates that. And I love her.

Basil Rice is a Jesus College fellow, very secretly gay and a friend of Non and her family. One of his students dies unexpectedly and while the Oxford police force isn’t fully up and running yet, the principal of Jesus College asks Basil to figure out what happened before the inquest so that they can protect the college from any scandal. Not noble motives, sure. But it opens the door to an interesting mystery, especially once Non inserts herself into affairs (against everyone’s better judgement, it must be said).

Perhaps one of my favourite things about this book is how vivid the picture of the victim, Sidney Parker, is. So much is revealed and layer by layer, the picture grows ever more detailed. Sidney is a tangible presence in the story and not simply a plot moppet or a faceless victim. He has quirks and personality and challenges. He’s a well-rounded character for all that he isn’t alive during proceedings.

I won’t say too much about the mystery element of things because I would need to hide the whole thing behind spoiler tags. There are some very suspenseful moments, especially towards the end of the book. But building up to that, Basil and Non do their investigating separately so bits and pieces are revealed in a variety of ways which keeps things interesting during the ‘quieter’ chapters.

Aside from Non, the real star of this story is the rich historical detail. I had my eyes opened to the ‘patent remedies’ that were advertised so widely during the Victorian era. I gained a new appreciation for how Oxford ran at that time (and probably still does to some degree). The supporting characters are just as rich as the historical detail and I enjoyed them immensely too, especially Non’s second cousin and chaperone, Lily. Speaking of, there is a potential love interest for Non, but that romantic subplot is very minor and not quite certain by the end of the book.

If you’re looking for a historical mystery rich in detail and heart, then I think you’ll really enjoy this book. In the meantime, I shall be eagerly awaiting book two’s arrival.


Amongst the scholars, secrets and soporifics of Victorian Oxford, the truth can be a bitter pill to swallow…

Jesus College, Oxford, 1881. An undergraduate is found dead at his lodgings and the medical examination reveals some shocking findings. When the young man’s guardian blames the college for his death and threatens a scandal, Basil Rice, a Jesus college fellow with a secret to hide, is forced to act and finds himself drawn into Sidney Parker’s sad life.

The mystery soon attracts the attention of Rhiannon ‘Non’ Vaughan, a young Welsh polymath and one of the young women newly admitted to university lectures. But when neither the college principal nor the powerful ladies behind Oxford’s new female halls will allow her to become involved, Non’s fierce intelligence and determination to prove herself drive her on.

Both misfits at the university, Non and Basil form an unlikely partnership, and it soon falls to them to investigate the mysterious circumstances of Parker’s death. But between corporate malfeasance and snake-oil salesmen, they soon find the dreaming spires of Oxford are not quite what they seem…

Historical: European, Mystery/Thriller
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