By Anthony Perconti
I HAVE ALWAYS been a lover of hard boiled fiction. The formula remains consistent; a world weary protagonist with an unshakable moral code, the uncaring city that preys on its residents, the femme fatale and power-players who use individuals like pawns in a chess game. Tropes used to explore darker aspects of the human condition, to provide compelling, plot driven tales.
I discovered Madeleine E. Robins’ 2003 novel, Point of Honour, and to my surprise, was treated to a new spin on the hard boiled PI genre: “hard boiled Regency.” A book that is more in line with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon than Jane Austen’s Emma.
Miss Sarah Tolerance is a “Fallen Woman.” Reared in a noble family, she made the catastrophic decision of running away with her brother’s fencing master. Disgraced and stripped of status and privilege, she returns to 1810 London after the death of her lover to carve out an existence for herself on her own terms. Shunning the profession of prostitute, which many a Fallen Woman had succumbed to, Sarah takes an assumed surname and finds work as an investigative agent.
“Society offers a woman like myself very few choices, my lord. Some become whores, some madams or hat-makers. I became an investigative agent. In the end it is all the same: a woman who can fall no farther has little choice but to go into business for herself."
Fortunately, this investigative agent is highly resourceful and a master of the sword (not to mention a crack shot as well). Tolerance is hired by a certain Lord Trux to track down and procure a stolen antique fan that harbors secrets that could shift the balance of power on the international stage. The quest for this McGuffin acts as the catalyst to propel the book’s plot forward, entangling Tolerance in a complex web of sex, murder, espionage and betrayal. Ever the outsider, Sarah Tolerance is the competent individual with a strong moral code, who is able to navigate the various social strata of London.
Not to give away too much of the plot, I do want to mention a wonderful scene at the novels denouement, in which Madeleine E. Robins pays direct homage to The Maltese Falcon in a gender reversed take on the final interaction between Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Sam Spade. As a long time Falcon fan, upon reading this, I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.
Point of Honour is set in an alternate 1810 in which George the Third never recovered from his initial bout of madness, where Queen Charlotte is the Regent of England. Although not an overt aspect of the story, Robins adds some charming and subtle anachronistic flourishes to her tale. Tolerance is an avid reader of the Dueling Notices section of the newspaper. Deemed illegal by the Crown (in both universes), duels of honor between individuals are more tolerated in Charlotte’s England. The Gunnard coat Tolerance wears—a high collared, green woolen greatcoat fashioned by the Belgian tailor of the same name—is an artifact of this parallel as well. And finally, the scientist, Dr. Charles Hawley, who Tolerance encounters in the novel, is credited for research done by the real world Gregor Mendel.
Point of Honour is a highly entertaining book that blends pre-established genre tropes into something fresh and new.
If you like David Liss’s Benjamin Weaver series, Kelly Gardiner’s Goddess or even Dashiell Hammett’s (or if you prefer, John Huston’s) The Maltese Falcon, give Point of Honour a try. You can thank me later.
Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.