Two years have passed since the events narrated in Clare Langley Hawthorne's Consequences of Sin. Suffragette turned reluctant sleuth Ursula Marlowe has had her world turned upside down with the death of her father and her romantic liaison with family-adviser and King's Counsel, Lord Oliver Wrotham, put on the back burner. Their attraction to each other is fierce and mutual but Ursula is loathe to give up her independence by marrying a man with conservative leanings. There is still so much work to do if women are to get the vote, and now Ursula is determined to run her father's textile factories on her own. And proper Edwardian women, certainly not the wives of barristers like Lord Wrotham, do not attend WSPU meetings or run cotton mills.
The Serpent and the Scorpion opens in the first days of 1912. She has traveled to Egypt to secure cotton supplies for her mills. A few months earlier Ursula had met a Russian Jewess at a New Year's Eve party she had been attending with her husband. The two women cross paths once again in Cairo where an afternoon spent shopping in a bazaar ends tragically when Katya is murdered. The pair had become separated, more likely diverted by a group of men and the general cacophony of a noisy overcrowded market. When next she sees Katya, she is on the ground--not fainted as Ursula suspects--but with blood from a bullet wound seeping through her shirt.
The local officials assure Ursula that the death is due to nothing more than local politics. Egyptian nationalists want to disrupt English rule, and a foreigner like Katya was simply an easy target. Ursula is, however, unconvinced. Katya and her husband, both being Russian, and Katya's socialist leanings seem like odd choices for assassination targets by nationalists.
Ursula has problems of her own. There have been difficulties in her mills and she is having a hard time keeping things running smoothly and under control. It would seem as though someone is sabotaging her businesses. Her travels are cut short when she is notified of a death and subsequent fire in one of her mills. The body of one of the female employees is found in the charred remains. Was she the target or simply the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? The death becomes even more mysterious when the woman's identity is revealed--she was Katya's sister. In true progressive thinking style Ursula accepts a ride on a friend's monoplane in order to return to her mills quickly and begin sorting out what happened.
The mystery moves from Palestine to London to Cairo and to the North of England and soon Ursula finds herself in over her head as she tries to unravel the mystery of deaths of Katya and Arina. Were the deaths related and were they were intentional crimes or down to simple bad luck. She is helped once again by her good friend and fellow suffragette Winifred whose own life had been thrown into upheaval after being accused of the murder of her lover. Death is not an unknown in either women's lives and worse, deaths occurring under horrible circumstances.
The story becomes even more tantalizing when a man from Ursula's past, a Russian Bolshevik, enters her life once again. If things had been cool between Ursula and Oliver before, a former beau complicates their tenuous relationship as much as it adds tension to their attraction. Headstrong as she is Ursula will find who her friends really are and that sometimes you do need to accept help and maybe even love from those closest and most dangerous to your piece of mind.
Clare Langley-Hawthorne knows just how to pull the reader along and into the story. Then tension between characters is almost too unbearable--the will they or won't they get together aspect of the story almost too drawn out and Ursula is so independent-minded she sets herself up for possible unhappiness. Then again, sometimes the anticipation of seeing how characters come together or are pulled apart is both entertaining and quite satisfying when done well. Ursula is an intriguing character--paradoxical as well. How does a suffragette with Socialist leanings reconcile also being a mill owner? No wonder she has issues with being attracted to a "Lord" who also happens to work closely with the government and keeps to the straight and narrow--knowing just how to work the system yet stay comfortably inside it.
I won't tell you whether they do or don't end up together, but I will say this second book ends with a cliffhanger ending. For once Ursula is contented and at peace, but Lord Wrotham is . . . oops, that would be telling. I have in my hands the third book, Unlikely Traitors, which I would have cracked open already had I not been so dedicated to whittling down my reading pile to a reasonable size (and am not quite there yet, but I am getting close). My 'Summer of Murder and Mayhem' is at a close (still have a few more to write about), though I will keep reading mysteries as normal. I am in the midst of a rather chunky historical mystery translated from French, thoroughly enjoyable in a different way. But Ursula sits and waits on the top of my bedside pile. I hope to see how things turn out for Ursula and Oliver very soon.