Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they’re delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.
But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The strange and disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea. It’s up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer’s horrifying finale?
God, I could read a million of these books. Gobble them up like candies. And, yes, that is 100% because of the dynamic between Wadsworth and Cresswell. And, as always, I’m always swept away by the Victorian setting and intrigued by the murder, even if I did feel that the pseudo-circus setting and longer page count weakened that a little. But, at the end of the day, I always know exactly what I’m getting myself into with this series, and that is Cressworth adorableness and an entertaining mystery.
Let’s start with the setting. I love Victorian settings. I hate circus settings. (This is a trend you may have noticed if you’ve read some of my other reviews.) So, was I super pumped by the whole “circus on a boat” thing? No. I wasn’t. However, I was surprised at how generally okay with it I was. (Trust me, for a circus book reviewed by me, that’s high praise.) I’ll be honest, the various shows put on and some of the scenes backstage with the performers just didn’t interest me but, once again, that’s all about me and my weird ambivalence to circuses, not Kerri Maniscalco’s ability to write a good circus setting. Although I did like the grisly involvement of tarot card imagery in the murders. That was very interesting, in a grisly sort of way. As always, I love the Victorian setting and society. The dresses, the cumbersomely formal manners, the guys in suits, everything. If it wasn’t for the rampant sexism and classism, I’d want to live in the Victorian age, and Kerri Maniscalco is great at bringing it to life.
Let’s talk about the characters. Of course, Thomas and Audrey Rose are precious and adorable and I want a procedural TV show that’s just 86.7% banter between them with a little mystery on the side. (Can I get this? Please?) Now with more kissing! I approve. As always, Thomas is witty and clever and I want my own. I did feel that Audrey Rose got a little caught up in the annoying YA “I-don’t-know-who-I-love-what-are-my-feelings” love triangle thing a bit, and her feminism can seem a little anachronistic, but, at the end, she was still brave and intelligent. (MY GOD THAT BIT AT THE END) The secondary characters were a little thin, though, and I wasn’t a huge fan of Mephistopheles. (How dare he think he can break up Cressworth? How dare he?)
The mystery itself isn’t the tightest-plotted mystery ever and I did feel that a hundred pages or so could have been shaved off. At times the story dragged and at a certain point so many bodies had turned up and had done so on such a regular schedule that any shock or surprise at a body being found was pretty much gone. The answer to the mystery also wasn’t the most satisfying, and there wasn’t really a sense of all these puzzle pieces suddenly coming together and everything making sense that you get in some other mysteries. It wasn’t super underwhelming, but it wasn’t an oh my god I never saw that coming but of course moment either. (BUT THAT BIT AT THE END. WITH THE THING. MY HEART. AAAAAHHHHH.)
The forensics parts were still really strong, though, and I loved the scenes where our gang dissected murder victims. (This is a normal thing to love, right?) I feel that the focus on forensics and Audrey Rose’s interest in them really sets these books apart and makes them very unique. I love seeing how Audrey Rose’s skills and confidence have increased over the course of these books, both as an investigator and as a person who cuts open dead bodies. (I forget the word for this, but you know what I mean.) I also love how her dynamic with Thomas is one where he’s always supporting her and giving her chances to prove herself and use her skills, and it’s not heavy handed or over-the-top. It’s just something that quietly happens and he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Where’s my Thomas Cresswell? I want one.
Escaping from Houdini isn’t a perfect book. It’s a little too long, the secondary characters are a little flat, and there’s a circus, which, if you’re not me, may be a good thing, but I am me, so too bad for circuses. But we’re all really here for Audrey Rose Wadsworth and Thomas Cresswell and they are as snarky and adorable and shippable as ever. If you’re looking for an escape to the Victorian era with plenty of murder and mayhem and excellent snark and chemistry, this series is still going strong. I’m definitely going to be experiencing Cressworth withdrawal until I get the next one.