Book Two of Nev March’s series of murder mysteries again features Captain Jim Agnihotri, a retired Anglo-Indian soldier of illegitimate birth and Sherlock Holmes aficionado, and his new wife, Diana Framji, a Parsi who comes from money and comfort. Leaving India in order to start a new life without strict social rules and the stigma of the Parsi community because Diana married outside of her religion, the couple finds themselves in Boston. Jim works with a detective agency that sends him to Chicago to solve a major case, and because the year is 1893, the case involves the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair that is larger and more stunning than the one which introduced Mr. Eiffel’s tower. After weeks of no word from Jim (who is trying to solve a murder and is embedded with workers), Diana decides she must follow Jim to Chicago to find him. But first, she convinces the detective agency to hire her. From there, she meets an array of interesting people of all classes, including historical figures central to Chicago’s history of the time, society people, children of the street, and workers who slave for pennies. Anarchists are somewhere in Chicago, planning to blow up the Fair, and Diana’s curiosity puts her adjacent to those who would do harm to the city, its citizens, and its visitors.
Peril at the Exhibition is a fun read, albeit it an occasionally frustrating one. The fun comes from March’s ability to translate the spectacle, massiveness, and grandeur of The White City to the page and from the parade of characters that cross Diana’s and Jim’s paths. The frustration settles on Diana’s exploits going beyond “curious” too many times to not call it “meddling.” However, her meddling ways (for she is a strong-willed young woman), educate her in realities of life that she had never encountered, much less imagined. She also engages an older Black man to accompany her as an employee of the detective agency but doesn’t learn about the prejudice towards persons of color until almost too late. The most interesting character in the book is Abigail, a dual-identity cross-dresser who may well have been teetering on the edge of transgender and who Diana hires to help her navigate Chicago. Abigail is intrepid where Diana is nosy. Abigail has street-smarts where Diana is pampered. All that said, Diana does have her eyes opened to street life, race, ethnicity, social status, and wealth classes, and experiences surprises with each. The bottom line is that Diana’s heart is larger than even she realizes.
Diana dominates the book rather than Jim this time around, but the novel is perfect for readers who enjoy mysteries in which the characters must rely on only on their brains rather than modern devices.