Honor Among Thieves by Elizabeth Boyce

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Grave robbing ain’t no job for a lady…

To pay off her recently deceased brother’s debts, however, Lorna Robbins must take drastic measures. When she happens upon a resurrectionist gang stealing his corpse, she does the unthinkable and joins the criminal outfit to save her family estate and her younger sibling. For the first time in her lonely, duty-driven life, Lorna finds herself leading a treacherous and exciting double existence. By day, she becomes a popular lady of the ton, relying on society gossip to help her body-snatching gang. By night, she becomes the grave robber known only as the Blackbird.

Surgeon and anatomy teacher Brandon Dewhurst relies on resurrectionists to bring him the specimens he needs to further his research on pregnancy. When his usual suppliers become unreliable, and then downright sinister, he’s reluctantly drawn further into the black market. As Lorna and Brandon both target the same body—a pregnant woman who is still very much alive—they find themselves powerfully drawn together time and again while trying to maintain their own respectable facades. But this daring duo is courting danger, and romance is a complication neither can afford.

Rating: B-

This is an enjoyable although rather dark story set amid the seedy underworld of nineteenth century London. In it, the author addresses a number of themes one might not expect to find within the pages of an historical romance, and does so in a very enlightening and interesting manner at the same time as she builds a tender and sensual romance between her central couple.

The book is set in the early nineteenth century, at a time when medical schools and teaching hospitals found it almost impossible to continue with their training and research programmes because of a scarcity of cadavers. The only bodies that were legally available were the corpses of executed felons, (and there weren’t enough of them), so the schools had to resort to illegal means of procuring the specimens they needed. This led to an increase in instances of grave robbing, as enterprising groups of criminals would dig up the freshly buried and sell them at a tidy profit.

In Honor Among Thieves, Lorna Robbins stumbles upon one such gang accidentally, when she catches them in the act of robbing the grave of her recently deceased brother. She and her much younger half-brother have been left in desperate financial straits, but her late-night encounter with the criminal gang gives her an idea. In return for not handing them over to the authorities, she wants to join them, declaring that if anyone is going to sell her brother’s body – it will be her.

Lorna quickly becomes a useful member of the Crib-Cross Gang, and finds herself actually exhilarated at the double life she is leading. Her status as the sister of a baron allows her to mingle in good society and ideally places her to hear the latest gossip as to who is recently deceased or who is at death’s door. So Lorna is both the quiet and correct “Miss Robbins” and “Blackbird”, infamous female body-snatcher – in which guise, she assists in planning and executing some truly audacious schemes. It’s a gruesome business, but for the first time in her life, she’s taking action and striking out on her own, which gives her a real sense of empowerment. But principally, she’s working with the gang in order to make enough money to be able to pay off their debts and to secure her brother’s future.

The Honourable Brandon Dewhurst was a surgeon in the army and now practices and teaches in London. At the behest of Douglas McGully, his superior at the Covent Garden School of Anatomical Studies, Brandon regularly purchases bodies from resurrectionists, something he hates doing while recognising that it’s the only way to obtain the necessary cadavers. Unfortunately, however, Brandon’s supply has all but dried up lately due to the fact that a rival gang – headed by the mysterious Blackbird – is ahead of the game and is snapping up all the freshest specimens!

Lorna and Brandon encounter each other at various society functions, and the frisson of their attraction is apparent early on. But Lorna’s potentially ruinous secret gets in the way of their burgeoning feelings for each other – and the more she gets to know the attractive young surgeon, the harder it is to face the prospect of telling him the truth.

The situation is worsened when Lorna discovers that Brandon has been more or less ordered to keep an eye on a young society matron, Lady Fenton, who is pregnant with triplets. McGully is engaged upon research into the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy, his ultimate aim to prevent unnecessary deaths in childbirth. He needs the bodies of deceased, pregnant woman in order to carry out his research, and the most valuable of all would be a woman who dies late in pregnancy. For various reasons, Lady Fenton is thought unlikely to survive – and is a prime target for London’s body-snatching gangs who know that they will be able to make a lot of money from the body of a young, pregnant woman.

It’s macabre and it’s distasteful – but what the author does so very well is to show that while both of those things are true, there is also a very thin line between the good and the bad in her story. Digging up dead bodies and selling them is an abhorrent practice – but doctors and surgeons need bodies in order to be further their scientific knowledge and find cures for disease; and the body-snatchers are trying to make a living by supplying a demand. So where do the boundaries lie?

Both Lorna and Brandon are decent people who want to help others but find that they sometimes have to bend the rules in order to do so. In bringing their moral dilemmas to the fore, Ms Boyce very skilfully explores questions of personal and professional ethics – and ultimately shows the reader that sometimes grey areas exist for very good reason.

The romantic angle in the story also works very well, and there’s a good amount of sexual tension between the two leads. There is perhaps a bit of “insta-lust” going on at the beginning, but as the story progresses, their feelings for each other grow and deepen, and they make a very well-matched and engaging couple. Brandon’s tragic back-story is heart-wrenching, and I really liked seeing Lorna taking charge of her life, and the way the couple works together to help the heavily pregnant Lady Fenton in the latter stages of the story.

Honor Among Thieves may not be the perfect book for the squeamish, but it’s a very-well written story and the historical background is interesting and obviously well-researched. The main reason I haven’t rated the book more highly is that the ending is too overly dramatic for my taste – the final stages of the book are tense enough without injecting elements of melodrama! But taken as a whole, it’s a very enjoyable book, and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone looking for something a bit different from an historical romance.

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