My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In The Rossetti Letter, Christi Phillips’s first novel, readers met American grad student Claire Donovan and English academic Andrew Kent, as they puzzled out a literary Renaissance mystery together in Venice. They made a good research team, and were frankly attracted to one another, but the chemistry wasn’t quite what it needed to be. In The Devlin Diary, Claire and Andrew meet again at Cambridge University, where Andrew, a fellow, has arranged for Claire to teach on a temporary basis. Once again, they fail to connect on a personal level, until the murder of a highly competitive colleague brings them together once more.
Claire has discovered the 17th century diary of one Hannah Devlin, trained in medicine by her father, and pressed unwillingly into service to cure the King’s mistress of “the clap”. Very skilled in the arts of healing, but overwhelmed by the intricacies and intrigue of court life, Hannah finds herself embroiled in a series of murders. The victims, one of which was her own father, were all present when the King’s sister died earlier of mysterious causes.
Author Phillips masterfully intermingles these two plots, in which Claire and Hannah face similar complications and challenges and meet them head on. Other characters are fully drawn, and the presentation of contemporary Cambridge and Restoration-era London is evocative of time and place, although the editor should have caught some of the anachronistic phrases (e.g., “that’s the ticket”) that pop up from time to time in the historical narrative. Both plots are enthralling throughout this long (464 pages) novel, and the denouement of Hannah’s story is deeply satisfying. The same can not be said of the ending of Claire’s, in which the murder is solved abruptly, and the resumption of the relationship between she and Andrew is handled rather coyly. Nevertheless, The Devlin Diary is sure to please both mystery and historical fiction readers.