Title: The Case of the Wandering Scholar
Author: Kate Saunders
Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime/Mystery
Publisher: Bloomsbury Australia
Published: 1st October 2019
Synopsis: It is 1851 and Mrs Rodd has received an unusual commission: wealthy businessman Jacob Welland is dying of consumption and implores our redoubtable detective to find his beloved brother, whom he has not seen for fifteen years.
Joshua Welland was an Oxford scholar; brilliant, eccentric and desperately poor. Nobody can say exactly when he disappeared from his college, but he had taken to wandering the countryside and one day simply failed to return. Since then, there have been several sightings of his lonely, ragged figure. Ten years ago a friend spotted him in a gypsy camp, where it was rumoured he was learning great secrets that would one day astound the world.
Mrs Rodd uses her search as an opportunity to reconnect with a couple from her past, but then a violent murder is committed and Scotland Yard are called to investigate. Mrs Rodd’s old friend Inspector Blackbeard doesn’t want to hear any nonsense about gypsies or secrets. Mrs Rodd, however, is convinced that something very sinister is lurking in this peaceful landscape.
Following a current trend in crime fiction, where the setting shifts to the nineteenth century, or a situation where the investigator or investigators don’t have access to the technology our favourite crime fighters in many television shows like Criminal Minds and NCIS have. And this is where the Laetitia Rodd series is interesting. Set in the 1850s, Mrs Rodd is a private investigator – with a friend in the police force – Mr Blackbeard – who seems torn between wonder at what she can achieve, and between maintaining the societal norms and gender norms of the day.
In her second outing, Mrs Rodd is called upon to help find a missing scholar, Joshua Welland, who has been spotted after ten years, hiding in a gypsy camp. During her search, Mrs Rodd reconnects with a couple from her past – Arthur and Rachel Somers until an horrific death tears the couple apart – and Mrs Rodd’s mystery deepens.
Because this is set in 1851, it takes much longer to uncover evidence, to gather information and determine who the right killer is. Without the convenience of instant contact, phones, and tracking systems, Mrs Rodd and her friends must rely on slower communication, and other ways of gathering information to uncover the truth behind Welland’s disappearance, and the murders.
In a way, this is quite delightful, as it allows the characters to develop along with the crime, and the secrets are easier in a way to keep and hide, and this makes the outcome satisfying. All investigators work hard for their cases and have their challenges. Private investigators face the challenge of not having access to resources that the police do, so they have to get creative.
Mrs Rodd is a very creative and clever private detective, using the skills and tools she has at hand as a woman in the 1850s to solve not only the murder case, but find out about Joshua Welland – his secrets and where he has been. Much like the first book, which came out three years ago, I very much enjoyed this one. She sits comfortably amongst all the other private detectives – Rowland Sinclair, Phryne Fisher, Sherlock Holmes and many others – to breathe new life into the crime genre and give it a new set of characters and a new way of looking at private investigators. Some are reluctant, some are keen, and some grow into it. This was a delightful addition to the series, and I hope there are many more to come.