As is happily usual, the second novel in a series surpasses the first. Kathy Lynn Emerson’s second work Face Down Upon an Herbal, featuring herbalist/sleuth Lady Susanna Appleton upholds this trend. Two years after the first book, Face Down in Marrow-Bone Pie, Susanna’s work on herbs has been published but with only her initials, giving the great many purchasers of her book no indication that the author is a woman.
While her husband is sent to Scotland on an errand for the queen, Susanna receives an order from Elizabeth to assist Lady Madderly, who is writing her own herbal. It does not take Susanna long after her arrival at the castle to realize she’s been manipulated by the wily queen. A month prior to her appearance, a Scottish lord was murdered and found lying upon a copy of Susanna’s published herbal. Shortly afterward, the Lady of the castle is struck down. The list of those who might want to do in the Scottish lord extends to nearly everyone in the castle who had opportunity, but no clear, discernable motive can be determined. The lengthy roster of suspects includes the master of the house, his ugly and bitter sister, and his handsome horseman.
Lady Appleton and her husband’s half-sister Catherine Denholm continue their work on the herbal and investigate the murders and their possible connection to counterfeiters working in the area. Thus the reason for Queen Elizabeth’s sending Sir Robert The Lost Book of Herbal Appleton to Scotland and his wife to Madderly Castle becomes apparent. Although the monarch doesn’t appear in the novel, Emerson illustrates Good Queen Bess’s shrewdness and her apparent disregard for her subjects’ feelings in getting her way.
There is more interaction between Lady Appleton and her husband, in this second work than in the first, and more animosity which confused me. In the first novel, Emerson makes it clear that there is no love lost between the couple, who are married by arrangement. But they had a congenial relationship. In this story, there is open hostility before they manage to forge a working relationship to solve the mystery that the Queen has embroiled them in. At the end of Face Down in Marrow-Bone Pie, Susanna manages to get a legal document that releases her from any control by her husband. Now she blatantly dislikes him and makes it clear she does not want him at Madderly Castle with her. His arrival for the holidays gives them ample time to call a truce and conspire.
Emerson adds more intrigue and suspense to her second work using the backdrop of the conflict between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary to the north as the basis for conspiracy, counterfeiting and murder. It was unclear as to what the nature of the counterfeiting was. The only specific incident of forgery noted in the novel was a fake genealogy used to gain a higher station in life. The implications of falsified documents to Elizabeth’s grip on the throne were vague at best, and it seemed as though the queen sent several agents to investigate the counterfeiting for her own amusement rather than her safety.
What Emerson does specify clearly are Lady Appleton’s recipes for physics, poultices, salves and unguents for binding battle wounds, curing body aches and ills. During one scene, Susanna rattles off ingredients for several potions in the span of two pages in a data dump, where specific information is concentrated into one area and is mainly for educating the reader instead of entertaining them. It doesn’t come off well in dialogue but in this novel wasn’t too awkward.