Happily, The Spoils of Avalon is only the first in Mary F. Burns’s series of historical mysteries, because lovers of a good literary romp through murder and mayhem will certainly want to join Scamps, aka the young John Singer Sargent just before coming into his own as an artist, and Violet Paget, who would come to be known as the prolific writer Vernon Lee, on more escapades. In this adventure set in 1877 the two, who were in reality friends from the age of ten, are in their early twenties. John has answered Violet’s call to join her for a trip to visit a family friend, a clergyman and collector of Arthurian relics who sent Violet a mysterious little leather-bound book written in 1725. Violet means to question the Reverend Crickley about the strange passage from Idylls of the King he wrote on a piece of folded paper she found in the book, a passage he ended with a message for her to “Trust no-one,” but alas, the two friends arrive in the little town of Brampton only to find the old gent has just died. Soon, the game is afoot. A murder is confirmed and a heinous villain suspected, but whom? A final will is either missing or being kept secret by someone who knows where it is. Will a rightful heir go begging? If Violet is to trust no-one, how will she and John ever uncover the truth? 
     The tale is told in chapters alternating between the friends’ sleuthing for clues in 1877 and the desperate days experienced by Abbot Richard Whiting and the monks of Glastonbury Abbey at the time of its destruction in 1539 at the pleasure of Henry VIII’s henchman, Thomas Cromwell. Could the monks’ determination to save even a few of Glastonbury’s relics and treasures mean the spoils of Avalon somehow found their way to tiny Brampton? If so, who has them, and do they even know they have them? Burns’s writing is true to the vernacular of the 1800s, as the tale is being told by Violet; and she fashions believable characters in both eras. Almost all are real historical figures, which could make it difficult to speak for them in a work of fiction – but Burns is deft at making the reader believe it all, even when the long trail from 1539 to 1877 dovetails nicely into a satisfying and somewhat mystical conclusion on a dark and stormy night.
Verdict: A delight of mystery and history in a high Victorian time warp.
Literary Fiction Review ( – March 2015


Writing a novel in two different time periods is nothing new but doing it really well is not so easy. The Spoils of Avalon is, to my way of thinking, a prime example of doing it oh, so very well. I was intrigued when offered the chance to read and review this because I’m fond of both the Arthurian legend and its time and the Victorian period for historical fiction and historical mysteries (not to mention pure historical nonfiction). Ms. Burns not only didn’t fail me, she gave me one of the best reads I’ve had all year....The characters, primarily Arthur, John and Violet, all came to life for me.... In Ms. Burns’ hands, Violet is incredibly engaging and intelligent with a wit that enlivens her conversations. She has joined the small group of Victorian sleuths I call my favorites....Anyone in search of a truly engaging mystery with depth of character and plot and interesting historical settings would do well to pick up The Spoils of Avalon, first in what I hope will be a very long series.
Lelia Taylor, Buried Under Books (


“Atmospheric settings and intriguing historical facts are woven into this impressive novel. I recommend it for English history buffs and mystery lovers both. The main characters, Paget and Singer Sargent, are an unlikely pair for sleuths but this works well as the book is also set in Victorian England.”
Harvee Lau, Book Dilettante (

“The Spoils of Avalon blends the rich details of historical fiction with the suspenseful, clue-driven sleuthing that characterizes the best in mystery. Dual timelines and missing Arthurian artifacts add delightful layers to this compelling, well-written series, which not only offers a unique, artistic twist on the “Holmes and Watson” detecting pair but places a female sleuth—the brilliant Violet Paget—in the driver’s seat. A must for fans of historical mysteries.”  Susan Spann, Author of the Shinobi Mysteries

“Mary Burns thoroughly evokes the world of high Victorian romanticism as murder in 1877 leads to a hunt for Arthurian relics hidden in 1539.  Following the well-matched pair of sleuths on a path between the centuries, the reader confronts marvels astonishing in any age.  Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson would be pleased to know that lines from his Arthurian Idylls of the King appear as chapter headings.”  Judith Rock, author of the Charles DuLuc Mysteries

What an engaging, literate page-turner!  The author does so many things well in this historical novel.  First, she creates two mysteries that take place centuries apart, both of them well-plotted and full of the sweet tension that mystery readers will love.  Second, she develops a witty, likable pair of characters from historical friends, Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent.  Third, she gently educates readers about history, art, legend, and the grand events involving Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church.  Finally, she creates two past worlds so effectively that I enjoyed losing myself in them, and suspending my twenty-first century skepticisms. 
    In this wonderful novel, the beginning of a series, the author depicts John Singer Sargent in a way we haven’t yet seen him – as co-amateur sleuth.  The historical Sargent’s well-documented passion for travel and for painting what he saw on his journeys is used in this novel to add color (pun intended) to the story.  However, his art is not its main focus; Ms. Burns does a skillful job of letting her narrator, the bright, literary Violet, keep center-stage.  The relationship of the two friends, in their early 20s, is intriguing: they remain “just friends” as the plot unfolds, albeit with affectionate touches, obvious concern for each other and light-hearted banter that made me wonder if a romance might bloom.
    The writing style and attention to historical detail are deeply evocative.  I especially thought the 1500s village and abbey life was brought vividly to life with all of its intrigues, religious mistrust, lingering paganism and earthiness.  Mary Burns, who brilliantly demonstrated her expertise about John Singer Sargent in her recent novel, Portraits of an Artist, again delivers for her readers, but in a delightfully new way.  I heartily recommend this book!Mark Wiederanders, author of Stevenson’s Treasure.

“An artist, a writer, a murder, a mysterious tome, a dissolving time, a crime, Arthurian legends, ancient saints books and bones. Burns’ prose drives and is sublime, with characters and settings that live on in your mind. This is an original historical mystery connecting the Age of Industry with the Age of Miracles.”    ̶  Stephanie RenĂ©e dos Santos, Cut From The Earth 


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