At the start of this mystery novel, set in pre-World War II Scotland, 15 year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart arrives back from finishing school in Switzerland. Sitting down by the river on her grandfather’s estate, she is knocked unconscious, and her gradual recollection of what led up to this attack is the key to the whereabouts of some missing river pearls and the identity of the thief.
The mystery itself is not particularly gripping or original, but it is a hook to hang the development of Julie, later to become Verity of Code Name Verity (2012), on. She loves putting the pieces of a puzzle together, she enjoys fooling people, and she relishes leading a conspiracy. She is empathetic, adventurous, impulsive, brave if somewhat foolhardy, willing to give anything a shot, and discontented with the lot of women in this era. As you can see, these are threads that will lead her to her role in that outstanding novel.
The Pearl Thief is also interested in social justice, through its portrayal of the McEwen family who are Travellers, often disparagingly referred to as “tinkers.” Many of the establishment figures, from the police to the librarian, are quick to jump to conclusions about their morals and behavior, instantly blaming them for everything from theft to murder. Julie, however, is less bound to this and takes their side (I can’t say I’m wild about this trope of the tolerant toffs and the bigoted working class). Ms Wein’s note on Travellers is a model of explanation and caveat.
Julie is yearning for romance, and her description of her relationship with Ellen McEwen suggests that her feelings are more than just that of a friend. The two girls along with their brothers, make an appealing quartet as they investigate the mystery.
As with her other novels, but particularly for me, Black Dove, White Raven (2015) Ms Wein evocatively and exquisitely describes the period and the setting. The death of Julie’s grandfather, the Earl of Strathfearn, means the family must sell off his estate to pay off his debts, and that melancholy task gives added resonance to Julie’s description of the countryside (though they do have a castle to go to, so let’s not shed too many tears).
This is an early ARC, and it has some issues that I’m sure will be sorted out. I found some of Julie’s narration and breaking of the fourth wall to be a bit too jolly hockey sticks (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “used to describe a woman or girl of a high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys most people.”) The tone shifts around a bit as well, but I suspect both these quibbles will be fixed before publication.
CNV was such a great novel, and though Ms Wein’s subsequent novels have been very good, they have not achieved that same level. Nor, currently, does The Pearl Thief, but it is still a fine historical mystery novel with an engaging and complex narrator and some thoughtful ideas about society in 1938.
Thanks to Disney-Hyperion and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.