Hart, Elsa. The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne. New York: Minotaur Books, 2020.
ISBN-13: 978-1250142818 | $26.99 USD | 352 pages | Historical Mystery
From the author of the acclaimed Li Du novels comes Elsa Hart’s new atmospheric mystery series.
London, 1703. In a time when the old approaches to science coexist with the new, one elite community attempts to understand the world by collecting its wonders. Sir Barnaby Mayne, the most formidable of these collectors, has devoted his life to filling his cabinets. While the curious-minded vie for invitations to study the rare stones, bones, books, and artifacts he has amassed, some visitors come with a darker purpose.
For Cecily Kay, it is a passion for plants that brings her to the Mayne house. The only puzzle she expects to encounter is how to locate the specimens she needs within Sir Barnaby’s crowded cabinets. But when her host is stabbed to death, Cecily finds the confession of the supposed killer unconvincing. She pays attention to details—years of practice have taught her that the smallest particulars can distinguish a harmless herb from a deadly one—and in the case of Sir Barnaby’s murder, there are too many inconsistencies for her to ignore.
To discover the truth, Cecily must enter the world of the collectors, a realm where intellect is distorted by obsession and greed. As her pursuit of answers brings her closer to a killer, she risks being given a final resting place amid the bones that wait, silent and still, in the cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.
I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
I wasn’t sure at first what I was getting into with The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne; it sounded a bit odd, but still interesting. And while the first 20% or so is a bit slow, the story picks up and ultimately pays off.
The story has a classic mystery vibe, with some readers evoking comparisons to Agatha Christie (an author I have yet to read, to my shame). The environment of the curious collection of Barnaby Mayne truly comes to life, in a way that you can picture it right before your eyes.
The mystery is complex enough to be engaging, justifying the slightly slower pace to set up the plot, and get things in motion.
I did find something a bit lacking when it came to the characters, however. I never really connected with anyone, even Cecily. While I like that she’s independent and intelligent, I felt there was a sense of shallowness to her relationships with other people that may have been accurate to the period, but did not really endear me to her or anyone else.
I have mixed feelings about the book, but I find the author’s writing style engaging, and would be interested to read more from her in the future. If you love stories with a classic, Christie-esque mystery feel, then you should still check out this book, to see if it works out better for you.
Elsa Hart is the author of three acclaimed mystery novels set in eighteenth-century China. The most recent, City of Ink, was one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2018. The daughter of a journalist, Elsa was born in Rome and spent much of her childhood abroad, attending international schools in Moscow and Prague. She is drawn to stories about travelers throughout history, and likes to put her own characters in places that are unfamiliar to them.
Bookshop (affiliate link)