A Dangerous Duet: A Novel by Karen Odden

Reviewed by Jim Eaton

This novel is a romantic thriller of sorts, set in London in 1875.

It concerns the comings and goings of one Nell Hallam, a young pianist whose chief desire is to study piano at the Royal Academy. At story’s open, she is employed three evenings a week at the Octavian, providing accompaniment for the various acts (magicians, jugglers, singers, trapeze artists, etc.), disguised as a man named Ed. As a woman, she’d be paid for less to play, if she were allowed to play at all.

Her position permits her access to a host of shady characters, some of which might not the scrutiny of her family physician, who fears for her mental health (her mother was manic-depressive), or her older brother, who is employed as a detective by Scotland Yard. Her daytime world bears little resemblance to her gig at the Octavian, and Nell does her dear best to keep these worlds apart, with, as one might expect, dwindling levels of success as we get deeper into story. Organized crime, corrupt coppers, sniveling schemers, sympathetic rogues, and several Dickensian tropes hop about, all bent on ruining Nell’s days and Ed’s nights.

The yarn pulls one along, no doubt. Odden deftly navigates London of the time with the confidence of a tour guide, reminding me at times of a certain Irish author whose creations stumbled and bloomed about Dublin, those they were notably burdened by a relentless ineluctable cavalcade of proto-post modern modalities and odysseys the likes of which Odden chooses to eschew. Instead, she strides forward and through in the manner of perhaps Ann Radcliffe and the Inimitable Boz himself. Her sense of place, of putting in a scene, made me wish to act (as I sometimes badly do) in a production with her as the director or at least set designer. The specificity of imagery is at times remarkable. The actions are equally excellent.

The characters are often, however, not as fully developed as I would have hoped. Perhaps that is due to the use of the first person perspective (Nell’s). A tale of this sort should, pardon the phrase, explore somewhat more aggressively the rag’s and bones the various characters’ personae. More flavor, please, and more lines and actions for the cast! This is not to say that the players weren’t interesting; it’s just that I could have—would have loved—a bit more dimension and depth here and there.

And why is that, I find myself wondering? As a pull along yarn, this book was entirely entertaining and beyond adequate, and yet, I wanted more, because ultimately in a book of this type the journey isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all. It’s the people we meet along the way that enrich and titillate. I think here of the works of James Lee Burke, Ruth Rendell, Lillian Jackson Braun, and even Boz himself. In the case of the first three, we oftentimes end up only half-heartedly caring about the outcome, so entranced are we by the proffered environ. Heck, I don’t think Braun’s Siamese stories ever give more than a page’s attention to the mystery’s denouement and yet the human flotsam and jetsam that bubble up…oy. Unforgettable. And Braun isn’t half the writer Odden is.

If you select London 1875 as your setting and you invoke Boz, your characters should all get up and howl “Come in and know me better, reader!”

Okay, that said, I cannot fault the yarn itself, nor the author. No. It’s a bit keystone cops in the third act, with people rushing back and forth and messages flying through the night like Frazier’s scorpion Bundt cakes, but we get it and we want to know what happens and we are with Nell and Jack and Bertault and Matthew (who I could not help but picture as Dan Stevens, natch) until the very end. I’m sure the novel is wanting to say something about moral ambiguity, and I would have like to see that theme fleshed out a bit more…but those who deserve comeuppance, for the most part, receive it.

It probably sounds as if I didn’t enjoy this. I did. That Odden possesses a clear mastery of the form and an eye for continuity, dialogue, and plot-building is undeniable, and the tale is all the better for it. I suppose I’ve just read too much of what she’s read (and probably taught and re-read and studied) to be satisfied with just a tale. Perhaps it’s odd to say one wanted more pages from a work that had three hundred and eighty or so of them, but more is indeed what I wanted. Headlong, unnecessary. Dip not the toe into the Victorian elements, says I: dive in like a bludgeoned corpse into the Thames! Dear Reader, I married it, so to speak. Next time, perhaps. And I would very much like to see (and hear and smell and breathe) next time’s adventure. Less restraint and more indulgence. A close third might be worth exploring, methinks, but ‘tis not me project to imagine. Cheers.