The Serpent and the Scorpion: An Ursula Marlow Mystery
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
Cover Artist: Scott McKowen
Review by Gayle Surrette
Penguin Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780143113393
Date: 30 September 2008 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Langley-Hawthorne picked an interesting time for her heroine, Ursula Marlow, to live in. The Pankhursts are rallying women to militant action to achieve votes for women. The Bolsheviks are fomenting unrest among the workers. Egyptian nationalists are struggling to throw out the British. There are rumblings and rumors of approaching war. It's 1912 and Urusla Marlow has inherited her father's factories and is struggling to keep them afloat in the face of increasingly costly breakdowns and damage (or maybe sabotage) at her factories. While in Egypt negotiating cotton contracts, she sees a friend murdered in the markets. Shortly later a women is found dead after a fire in one of her factories. Ursula believes these deaths are connected.
The times are rife for fiction, mystery, and suspense. It's prior to WWI and women are struggling for the vote among other economic and social changes. Ursula Marlow is struggling to run her father's business, join with other suffragettes to achieve the vote, avoid marriage, even though she's in love, and to investigate the death of her friend, Katya Vilensky. Ursula feels that the police are ignoring her eye-witness testimony in favor of blaming nationalists. There's some backstory explaining how in a previous adventure, Ursula managed to identify a killer, but the police ignored her and her father was murdered, so her fears seem justified.
In investigating the death of Katya and the woman in her factory, Ursula is putting her social position in jeopardy. She's under a lot of pressure to conform to the social standards of her rank in society and her independence causes her to be a subject of rumors and innuendo.
Langley-Hawthorne has developed an interesting character in Ursula Marlow and by placing her in this level of economic wealth; Ursula is well placed to be involved in the political, economic, and social changes that were the hallmark of the era. It's an era of change and we see it all thorough the eyes of this young woman.
The mystery itself is more far-ranging than Ursula could know, but she focuses on the elements that concern her -- the death of her friend, Katya. Nonetheless as we follow Ursula as she investigates, we, with the gift of hindsight and knowledge of history, can put some of the pieces of the puzzle together that frames the murder. There are twists, turns, and surprises aplenty and while the culprits are identified and taken in custody, the conclusion is far from satisfactory -- not because it doesn't ring true but because it fits the times, and is frustratingly correct for the times. Arghhh.
The book then ends with a cliffhanger that I hope can only be the setup for the next installment in the adventures of Ursula Marlow.