How I missed Janet Gleeson‘s book in 2002 I do not know. It will forever be a mystery. The book has everything I love: a historical setting with enough twists so that the plot I envisioned could come true.
We are in the eighteenth century, in the United Kingdom. The year is 1755. It is the time of the first piano, the first thermometer, and Daniel Defoe writes his book “Robinson Crusoe.”
It is the time in which modern pathology as we know it now is born. The stethoscope is invented and hospitals are established for a variety of purposes. This is the period that Gleeson chose for her book.
It is a time for strict gender behaviour protocols and conventional norms. British society strictly defined social ranking. Interactions between ranks were conducted according to strict protocol. Dressing up for dinner was important as this was how young people would meet each other. This strict protocol too runs through Gleeson’s book.
Before reading Gleeson’s book, I recommend you quickly look up images of Thomas Chippendale‘s furniture if you are not familiar with his style. It will make the items later discussed in the book more vivid and you can imagine what everything looked like.
The book starts at New Year’s day, 1755. We are inside Lord Monfort’s dining room. Our main character, Nathaniel Hopson, just dropped a tray filled with oranges and desperately tries to clean up his mess. But then he sees that nobody notices his blunder. Everyone is in shock. They just heard gun fire.
Our dinner host, Lord Monfort, lies dead inside his library. He is survived by his second wife, a son from his first marriage (his mother passed away), his sister, and other relatives. At the dinner party were several close friends. But some of them were also creditors. Monfort worked hard and played hard. Unfortunately, along the way the dice didn’t roll well for him. He is over his ears in debt. This begs the question: did he kill himself or was he murdered? Neither question is easy to answer. Suicide is possible but the crime scene calls for murder. Murder is possible but the obvious suspects are not easy to find.
And there isn’t just one murder. There is another. Nathaniel’s colleague and friend, Partridge, ends up dead too. He is found on Monfort’s estate. Here too we ask ourselves what the motive could have been. In contrast to Monfort, Partridge doesn’t have much. Are they even connected?
Nathaniel is appointed by the local judge to aid Lord Foley, one of Monfort’s creditors, in the quest for answers. It takes them (mostly Nathaniel) to London and surrounding areas. Into pubs and into grime filled hovels. We meet people from every societal ranking. We feel how every new acquaintance makes Nathaniel’s head spin further out-of-order and makes him forget logic.
He has clues but he doesn’t see them. Gleeson leaves a grenadillo box in Monfort’s dead hand. She paints the Chippendale workshop and its apprentices. She sketches family life in the 18th century. Yet Nathaniel doesn’t see clearly. It might be the many girlfriends, the cheap wine, or the serious lack of sleep. By the time that he finally sees what was before him all along it is almost too late.
The Grenadillo Box by Janet Gleeson is a fantastic read. The writing pace is fast. The book is rich in details about the many artfully decorated furniture pieces. The characters are likeable even though at the end you feel like dunking Nathaniel’s head in a bucket of ice water. However, you still root for him as he crawls towards the conclusion.
Highly recommended reading.