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The Dark Lantern    by Gerri Brightwell order for
Dark Lantern
by Gerri Brightwell
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Gerri Brightwell's historical mystery, The Dark Lantern, is set in an Upstairs Downstairs house of secrets in 1893 London. Upstairs, the mistress of the house, elderly Mrs. Bentley, is quietly dying. Her son Robert and his wife Mina have come (most reluctantly on Mina's part) from Paris to be with her, and her other son, Henry, has been summoned back from his administrative position in India - in fact, it's not Henry who shows up but a surprising new sister-in-law for Robert and Mina.

Downstairs, we find a butler and cook - Mr. Cartwright and Mrs. Johnson - who have been systematically robbing their mistress for years. New to the household is orphaned Jane Wilbred, who has forged her own letter of reference in order to hide from the disgrace that has overshadowed her life so far - the fact that her mother was hanged as a murderess. The other housemaid, Sarah, disappears on mysterious errands during working hours without any repercussions from her superiors, delves into everyone else's secrets, and forces Jane to do much of her work and hand over her wages.

There's a lot more cooking in this Victorian household than the family dinner - everyone seems to be spying on someone else, there are thefts, forgery, blackmail, and a possible impersonation for insurance fraud. Adding another intriguing layer to the mystery and its well developed historical context is the competition between two emerging disciplines for widespread use in the identification of criminals - anthropometry (identification by a variety of body measurements) versus the science of fingerprints. Anthropometry is Robert Bentley's life passion and he hopes to convince the Troup Committee of the weakness of the case for fingerprints.

It would be hard to imagine a more downtrodden heroine than Jane Wilbred, who easily gains readers' sympathy for the unfairness of her life, the unrelenting long hours and hard work demanded of her, and the pressure she is under from both Mina Bentley and Sarah. Author Gerri Brightwell braids all her story threads together into a smooth and satisfying ending, where all concerned get - more of less - what they deserve, and where fingerprinting wins the day.

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