Friday, August 6, 2010

West End baby

As a fan of historical fiction and an old theatre baby, I wonder why it took me so long to find Julia Golding's Cat Royal series. Yes, it's another pre-teen detective, but Cat (short for Catherine) is solving age-appropriate crimes in 1790 London. A foundling left on the steps of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, she was offered shelter and sustenance by the owner/manager, Richard Sheridan. Sheridan, who is remembered today as a playwright, christened Cat in honor of his theatre. She has grown up amongst the actors, bon vivants and general scalawags of the 18th century theatrical profession (considered a racy one) and she writes her first adventure, The Diamond of Drury Lane, in the structure of a five-act play.

Cat overhears Mr. Sheridan discussing a precious diamond to be kept safe somewhere in the theatre, which -- because she is an inquisitive child -- she is determined to find. She blurts out her secret the very next day to her new friend, the African child prodigy (on the violin) Pedro. Cat can't really keep the story to herself, because next in on the search are a young titled brother and sister, the Earl of Arden and Lady Elizabeth. And then there's the mysterious man, Jonathan, who appears suddenly one day and becomes the theatre's prompter. It turns out that Jonathan is on the run from the law, as his anonymous political cartoons lambasting the government aren't so anonymous any more. There's also two rival gangs, lots of local color and "cant" (slang), a near hanging and a last-minute reprieve, and a general sense of fun.

Finty Williams (daughter of the great Dame Judi Dench) reads the novel. It's a pretty enjoyable performance. She's got a nice, youthful voice and reads the lengthy, fairly complex novel with good pacing. Cat's a bit of a spitfire (had she not been left on the theatre's doorstep, she would likely have ended up adventuring with Jacky Faber) and Williams brings that to her narrative. The book concludes with a Georgia Nicolson-like glossary of terms, which Williams reads with sass and freshness. (There's also a pretty fun take on this at the author's website.)

Williams doesn't do much voicing here, so occasionally it's difficult to track the story's dialog. And some of the characters she does voice seem odd: Pedro sounds so high and childlike that he sounds like he's about six years old. But these are minor distractions in what otherwise was a fun listen.

Both this and the Flavia de Luce book came to my ears via downloadables. I appreciate that they are available (and for that reason, I'll continue to listen to them), but I really prefer the sound of CDs.

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding
Narrated by Finty Williams
BBC Audiobooks, 2008. 7:16 (unabridged)

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