A Decline in Prophets is full of vicarious high-life as it takes readers on a luxury cruise, to bohemian parties in Manhattan, and on the polo grounds of Australia. Along the way, we meet several eminences of the time. It is 1932 and Rowland Sinclair and his companions Milton, Clyde, and Edna are traveling the world on the Cunard luxury ship the Aquitaine.
Sinclair, or Rowlie as he is often called, is fabulously wealthy thanks to inheritance. He is a bohemian, a painter, and a generous patron to his friends Milton, a poet; Clyde, a fellow painter; and Edna, a sculptress who has carved a permanent spot in Rowlie’s heart. He is recovering from being shot in the leg by Edna in the first book of this new series (A Few Right Thinking Men) which ended with him and his friends in disfavor. The cruise is a strategy to remove them from Australia while the scandals of book one dissipate.
On the cruise, Rowlie meets Annie Besant, the theosophist woman’s rights activist and Jidda Krishnamurti, the philosopher. The heart of the story is centered on the Theosophical Society and its leadership and their scandals. Many of the characters are real people and the scandals were real. One of their party, the unpleasant Orville Urquhart, was found stabbed with Rowlie’s cane shortly after Rowlie had interrupted Urquhart in the midst of forcing himself on Edna and broke his nose. Accidents and murders accumulate, but it is not clear what their connection is – the Theosophical Society seems obvious at first, but then that assumption is confounded when the Catholic niece of the very Catholic and choleric Bishop Harrahan is murdered. It’s quite a mystery, indeed.
There are many things to like about A Decline in Prophets. It is a fair mystery. While Rowlie solves it by looking at a photo, readers can solve it by paying attention to who is where and when. Moreover, we are told who is in the photo and need only consider the characters of those people as presented to know who in the photo was important. One of the things I like is that people who are injured stay injured into the next scene. There are no miraculous recoveries and Rowlie’s sore leg hangs on, healing as slowly as one might expect. It’s a small thing, but so important when so many mysteries are full of people who seem to drink Health potions to power up. The mystery and motive is sufficiently complex as well. The plot is very good.
The characters are relatively well-developed, but they do seem a bit “of a type”. I am certain they will become increasingly layered and multi-dimensional as the series progresses. Nonetheless, I found the book over all to be a bit sluggish. Gentill did a lot of research and it shows too much. For example, there is a scene with Phil the Jew that did not advance the story at all. Gentill introduced an unnecessary character and achieved nothing but showing off some research about the real Phillip Jeffs, aka Phil the Jew. He does not appear again. Perhaps this is someone who will feature more largely in a later book, but in this book, he just seems a “hey, look at all my research” intrusion.
Each chapter begins with a news clipping or quote that affirms that facts in the story are historical. I disliked this in the extreme. In addition to interrupting the story, they seemed more defensive than anything else. For example, there’s an airship in a chapter, and the chapter opens with a clipping about air ships. It seems like it is there to prove that air ships existed at that time. There’s a clipping about a child being saved from poison by swallowing charcoal, as though we need documentation that could work. Rather than adding interest, the net effect was projecting an air of defensiveness about the historical accuracy of the story. It would be a far better book if all of these chapter introductions were removed. I would recommend just not reading them, but we are readers, aren’t we, and we can’t stop ourselves. I know I had to read them even though I wished them gone. She needs to have more confidence in us, her readers, and realize we don’t need to see evidence that she did research. We can see it for ourselves in her story.
All in all, A Decline in Prophets is worth reading. It has an interesting plot and characters that are likable. I hope though, over time, there is more mystery, less history, and far more faith that we, her readers, will trust her.
A Decline in Prophets will be released on December 6th. I received an e-galley from Netgalley.