“Miss Vesper Holly dislikes weak tea and watercress sandwiches. She avoids those genteel occasions featuring starched white collars and white gloves. However, the slightest hint of something out of the ordinary is enough to gain the dear girl’s attention.
‘When a grand duchess asks you to her diamond jubilee celebration,’ said Vesper, ‘that’s no tea party invitation.'”
It certainly isn’t. In the third installment of Vesper Holly’s adventures (narrated, as always, by her guardian and #1 fan Professor Brinton Garrett), the plot gets started in a slightly different way than its predecessors. Instead of finding out that she has inherited a volcano, or deciding to continue her father’s research in a volatile part of the world, Vesper embarks on this adventure by accepting an invitation to a royal party in a stable European country (the Duchy of Drackenberg). Obviously everything still goes tits up, because this is a Vesper Holly adventure, but Alexander lets his heroine have a little mini-vacation, going to balls and exploring castles like any tourist, before throwing her into the real adventure.
I was on the verge of bumping this book’s rating up to four stars, first because I enjoyed that the pace of the adventure was less breakneck than previous books. Things still moved quickly, but this time there was actually time for our heroes to breathe between adventures, rather than having to race from one dire scrape to another, and it gives the reader time to breathe as well.
Another reason this book deserves a higher rating (let’s compromise and say three and a half stars) is because, for the first time, we get to spend quality time with Brinnie’s wife, Mary. After being left behind to look after the house in The Illyrian Adventure and The El Dorado Adventure, Mary gets invited along to Drackenberg, and I’m only sad that Alexander waited until Book 3 to introduce her to readers. Mary establishes herself as a solid member of the team right off the bat, when she and Vesper are caught in a riot in the Drackenberg capital. When Brinnie arrives to spring his wife and his ward from jail, this delightful exchange occurs:
“‘We were accosted,’ said Mary. ‘I do not tolerate being accosted under any circumstances, neither in Philadelphia nor anywhere else. I simply will not stand for it.’
‘Aunt Mary used a handbag on them,’ said Vesper.”
Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) Mary gets kidnapped by the bad guys pretty early in the book and has to sit most of the adventure out, but she still manages to make the most of her time when (spoiler alert?) she’s rescued:
“Dear Brinnie, how could you ever have imagined that I would allow myself to be a helpless victim? To be abducted? Manhandled? And do nothing about it? That sort of treatment is entirely unacceptable. If I’d had my handbag, those ruffians would not have carried me off in the first place.”
Aunt Mary is officially my favorite. I know it’s not possible for a lot of reasons (for one thing, the entire series was published thirty years ago) but I’m still going to start a petition to have Mary replace Brinnie as Vesper’s companion on her adventures. Bumbling and delightful as Brinnie is, I enjoyed Vesper and Mary’s rapport infinitely more, and immediately started imagining how much fun it would be if Mary narrated one of the books. But I have a feeling this isn’t going to happen.
I’ve been so busy fawning over Mary I haven’t even gotten a chance to explain the plot yet. Right, so we get to Drackenberg and quickly learn that it’s in danger of being annexed by its larger and richer neighbor, Carpatia. This, I’ve learned, is pretty much the default Vesper Holly conflict – two groups fighting each other, with our heroine siding with the scrappy underdog – but luckily the conflict takes more of a backseat this time. There’s an entire subplot about a missing painting, and I wish it had been the main plotline, because it was nice to see Vesper invested in a small-scale problem that was still interesting. Vesper doesn’t need to solve the problems of an entire country every time for the books to hold my interest. Oh, and also this book has Gypsies, and the best that can be said about them is that their portrayal is only mildly racist. Anyway, so we have the annexation conflict, and the missing painting, and everything moves along at a nice clip, and then everything gets ruined when – guess who – Dr. Helvitius shows up.
As I predicted in my review of The El Dorado Adventure, Dr. Helvitius has become a problem. I understand Alexander’s need to give Vesper a nemesis – the series is inspired mainly by the Sherlock Holmes books, so we need a Moriarty – but there is a reason Moriarty only appears in two Holmes stories. The big super-dangerous villain can only show up so many times before you run out of reasons to explain why he hasn’t just shot the heroine in the damn head already, and by Book 3, Alexander is already running out of reasons. In this one, Helvitius’s goons capture Vesper and Brinnie, knock them unconscious, and transport them to a second location just so Helvitius can explain his dastardly plan to them and then kill them. This is irritating, but I understand that this is a book for children and Alexander can’t have his villain actually murder the heroine, or even hurt her in any serious manner. But here is my real problem with Helvitius: he is a distraction. Every time he appears, he derails the entire plot and makes everything center around himself – instead of working on whatever problem she’s been assigned in this book, Vesper has to completely refocus her attention on dealing with whatever dumb roadblocks Helvitius throws at her, and it’s getting old. I really, really hope he’s not in the fourth book, and Alexander lets Vesper deal with someone else for a change, but I know better than to get my hopes up. At least the adventures are still fun, despite their issues.
Verdict: three and a half out of five stars