Saffron Everleigh is a recent graduate of University College in London who works as a research assistant in the botany lab of her beloved mentor, Dr. Maxwell. She hopes to pursue a graduate degree and follow in her late father’s footsteps as a professor and researcher, but it’s 1923 and she’s the only woman in a department where rampant sexual harassment and male condescension stymie her ambition.
At a swanky dinner party celebrating the university’s upcoming scientific expedition to the Amazon, the wife of Dr. Henry, the philandering department head, suddenly collapses. The diagnosis is poisoning. Dr. Maxwell is the main suspect—he’s an expert in plant toxins and was recently seen having a heated argument with Dr. Henry. Shocked by his arrest, smart and plucky Saffron is determined to track down the real culprit, even though the stone-faced police inspector keeps dismissing the ideas and evidence she presents.
She finds an unexpected ally in Alexander Ashton, a handsome biologist who secretly bears the physical and psychological scars of the Great War. Alexander has been assigned to carry out Maxwell’s research project in the Amazon and he needs Saffron’s help to prepare. Though reticent about his personal life, Alexander is kind and treats Saffron with unaccustomed respect as a fellow scientist. The pair have just two weeks to discover the truth before the expedition team, including Alexander, will depart for Brazil, perhaps with the true poisoner among them.
The list of suspects quickly expands as Saffron and Alexander uncover hidden motives, personal and professional rivalries, and possible financial misconduct among the college’s faculty members. As they work together, the mutual romantic attraction and friendship between the young scientists grows—as does the risk that the poisoner will strike at them next.
Saffron is an engaging and intrepid heroine, Alexander a complicated, yet dashing hero, and the chemistry between them is just right. The many supporting characters, including the police, Saffron’s roommate Elizabeth, and the scientists and staff at the university are lively and well drawn. The academic atmosphere and scientific details are believable (though the author admits to taking a bit of artistic license), and the plot’s twists and turns keep the suspense humming along to its satisfying conclusion. Mystery readers will find Kate Khavari’s debut a welcome and entertaining addition to the whodunit genre.