Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her dear friend, Lady Kiera Darby is in need of a safe haven. Returning to her childhood home, Kiera hopes her beloved brother Trevor and the merriment of the Hogmanay Ball will distract her. But when a caretaker is murdered and a grave is disturbed at nearby Dryburgh Abbey, Kiera is once more thrust into the cold grasp of death.
While Kiera knows that aiding in another inquiry will only further tarnish her reputation, her knowledge of anatomy could make the difference in solving the case. But agreeing to investigate means Kiera must deal with the complicated emotions aroused in her by inquiry agent Sebastian Gage.
When Gage arrives, he reveals that the incident at the Abbey was not the first—some fiend is digging up old bones and holding them for ransom. Now Kiera and Gage must catch the grave robber and put the case to rest…before another victim winds up six feet under.
This is the third in Anna Lee Huber’s series of romantic mysteries set in 19th century Scotland and it’s a highly satisfying read on both counts.
Lady Keira Darby is the widow of a renowned physician and anatomist who married her solely for her talents as an artist. Too tight-fisted to pay for someone to illustrate his anatomical textbooks, he forced Keira to watch and draw his human dissections. For a lady to be exposed to such a gruesome thing was quite unthinkable, and when, after his death, word got out about Keira’s – albeit reluctant – involvement in his work, she was shunned, reviled, and relegated to the fringes of society. But the familiarity she had gained with the workings of the human body, combined with her quick wittedness and keen eye, made her ideally placed to help solve a murder investigation in which she was a suspect in The Anatomist’s Wife. In A Grave Matter, as in the two previous books, Keira works to solve a mystery alongside the handsome and enigmatic enquiry agent, Sebastian Gage, a man who confuses, intrigues, frustrates, and attracts her in equal parts.
Keira has retreated to Blakelaw House, her brother’s home, following the recent death of a dear friend during her last investigation (Mortal Arts). She is still mourning her friend and wrestling with the nature of her feelings towards Gage, from whom she parted in Edinburgh on uncertain terms. She has become very withdrawn from those around her – even her brother, to whom she is fairly close – and worse still, is unable to find solace in the art she so loves. A skilled portraitist, she has not completed a painting since her return from Edinburgh, and is finding it increasingly difficult to even pick up a paintbrush or to even want to paint, something which only adds to her grief and frustration.
The story opens on Hogmanay 1830, at Clintmains Hall, the home of her uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Rutherford. When the tradition of “First Footing” (a superstition that the first person to cross the threshold of a house after midnight will bring good or bad luck to the household) is interrupted by a young man covered in blood, telling of grave-robbing and murder at nearby Dryburgh Abbey, it seems that Keira’s period of retreat is at an end.
While her uncle would normally seek to spare a woman from something so gruesome, he nonetheless asks for Keira’s help. It’s a mark of her growing confidence in her abilities as an investigator that she actually wants to help, as her assistance in the previous investigations was more accidental and reluctantly given (because she had been trying to distance herself from the part she had played in her husband’s work). Her uncle also asks her to send for Gage, who, it seems, is still in Edinburgh, despite his declared intention of returning to London.
Ms Huber has once more penned an engagingly complex mystery. Gage’s arrival adds yet more complications to the plot as he reveals he has been working on a similar case, and that whoever stole the bones then demanded a ransom for their return. He suspects the desecration at Drysburgh may follow the same pattern, so now he and Keira are faced with something rather more devious than a simple grave robbery.
His arrival adds other complications, too, as his presence unsettles Keira in ways she isn’t ready to think about or admit to. Because the story is told in the first person, we only see Gage through Keira’s eyes and can only judge his thoughts and actions according to what she sees and thinks. He reveals little of himself to others, preferring to hide behind the persona he cultivates of the handsome charmer, something which enables him to move freely amongst the highest in society while also fooling people into thinking that he’s not much more than a pretty face. In their reluctance to let people get close to them he and Keira are very much alike, but Keira’s deep-rooted insecurities could put paid to any thoughts of a relationship between them. Her reluctance to trust a man is understandable, given the treatment she received at the hands of her late husband, but even though she knows Gage will never hurt her, she can’t help allowing her fears to overcome her rationality.
While I – as, I suspect, is true for many others – read this book as much for the on-going romance as for the mystery element, I do enjoy the way the author weaves the two threads together. The relationship between Keira and Gage progresses nicely, and reaches a satisfying point by the end, even though it’s clear there is more to come (I admit, I may have squealed with delight at the prospect of a fourth book, even though it’s a year away!). But the romance is never allowed to overshadow the mystery, which makes for a greater realism in the story as a whole.
A Grave Matter is very well written, (although a few Americanisms slip through – eg. sidewalk instead of pavement) and makes good use of a number of historical settings and personages. The main characters and familial relationships are strongly drawn; we’ve already met Keira’s sister and brother-in-law, the Earl and Countess of Cromarty, as well as her brother, Trevor, who appeared only briefly before. Here, he’s fully-fleshed out, and his relationship with his sister is supportive and truly touching, especially when, near the end of the book, he tells her a few things she needs badly to hear. Gage is as gorgeous a hero as ever, and I was delighted to see him opening up a little. But it’s Keira who makes the greatest journey in terms of character development. She’s progressed from being a woman who wants to sink into the shadows to one who is gaining confidence in herself and her abilities, is less afraid of the gossip that surrounds her, and isn’t afraid to put herself in harm’s way in order to protect those she cares about.
Anyone who has enjoyed the previous books in this series is certain to enjoy A Grave Matter, yet there is enough detail about past events to make it work fairly well as a standalone for anyone picking this up without having read the others. I enjoyed it very much and will probably embark upon re-read of the series so far in order to get my Gage fix while awaiting book four!