The Kern Secretarial Agency provides reliable professional services to its wealthy clientele, and Anne Clifton was one of the finest women in Ursula Kern’s employ. But Miss Clifton has met an untimely end—and Ursula is convinced it was not due to natural causes.
Archaeologist and adventurer Slater Roxton thinks Mrs. Kern is off her head to meddle in such dangerous business. Nevertheless, he seems sensible enough to Ursula, though she does find herself unnerved by his self-possession and unreadable green-gold eyes…
If this mysterious widowed beauty insists on stirring the pot, Slater intends to remain close by as they venture into the dark side of polite society. Together they must reveal the identity of a killer—and to achieve their goal they may need to reveal their deepest secrets to each other as well…
Rating: C- for narration; C for content
I suspect that even the most devoted of Amanda Quick’s fans would agree that her books tend to the formulaic. That’s not a criticism – there are times we all want to read or listen to something in which we know in advance what we’re going to get and that we’re likely to enjoy, and Ms Quick’s legion of fans clearly demonstrates that the pattern she employs in her historical romantic mysteries works for large numbers of readers and listeners. I’ve enjoyed several of her books and audiobooks myself, but the problem with sticking to a formula is that because the story is, for the most part, eminently predictable, it needs to be populated with interesting, strongly written characters – and I’m afraid that Garden of Lies doesn’t deliver on that. It also doesn’t deliver on the romance, which is unconvincing and feels as though it has been “tacked on”.
Add to the lack of particularly strongly developed characters and romance a performance which is decent, but not sufficiently engaging as to hold my interest through those portions of the story which dragged somewhat, and I’m afraid that the audiobook of Garden of Lies is a disappointment all around.
That’s not to say that new-to-me narrator Louisa Jane Underwood delivers a terrible performance. She differentiates well between all the characters and uses a variety of accents – some more successfully than others; she reads with a lot of expression and the narrative is well-paced. But I really disliked the way she voices the hero, and the more romantic aspects of the story are severely underplayed.
Slater Roxton is an expert in antiquities who was accidentally trapped in an underground tomb on the remote Fever Island during an expedition. By a lucky twist of fate, he managed to find his way out of the labyrinth, but was then stranded on the island as the rest of his party had departed, presuming him dead.
The story then jumps ahead several years, where Slater, having recently returned to England, has employed Mrs Ursula Kern of the successful and highly recommended Kern Secretarial Agency, to assist him with cataloguing the various artefacts he has brought back from his travels. Ursula informs Slater that she needs to terminate her contract of employment with him – or at least, take a hiatus – while she attends to some urgent personal business. He is not at all happy with her giving her notice as they have barely started upon the work, and eventually gets her to tell him just what is so important that she is prepared to abandon him. And his project, of course.
Ursula Kern was widowed some years before, and following a scandal not of her making, disappeared and re-established herself under a new identity, setting up the Kern Secretarial Agency as a way of supporting herself. The agency quickly flourished, earning a sterling reputation along the way, and Ursula now has a number of employees. One of these, Anne Clifton was recently discovered dead and various pieces of information have led Ursula to believe that Anne was murdered. Having counted Anne as her closest friend, Ursula naturally wants to find out the truth and, if Anne was indeed murdered, find out who did it and bring them to justice.
Intrigued by the mystery – and wanting to find a way to stay close to Ursula, to whom he has been attracted since their first meeting – Slater offers his help, and the pair embarks upon their investigation. This turns out to be a tangled web of blackmail, prostitution, drugs, and organized crime, and along the way, they also begin a romantic and sexual relationship. Ursula’s late husband was a gambler and womaniser and she swore off men as a result, yet there’s something in Slater Roxton, an air of danger, of passion tightly leashed behind an iron control that she finds incredibly attractive. For his part, Slater’s time on the island and then in a monastery, in which he found a sense of purpose, have taught him the dangers of strong emotions – but Ursula has re-awakened desire within him, and the strength of it unnerves him.
Ursula is an entrepreneur, a woman ahead of her time, and I liked her no-nonsense attitude. She dresses severely in black and always wears a thick veil, giving the impression of a woman in deep mourning, but in reality, she wears her clothes like a shield. In much the same way, Slater does, too, hiding in plain sight behind spectacles he doesn’t need and concealing his true nature beneath a tightly controlled, unemotional exterior. The bastard son of a wealthy lord and an actress, he doesn’t quite fit into the boxes so beloved of society; he is wealthy and an imposing personality, but not one of the ton given the circumstances of his birth. I did like him as a character, especially his wry sense of humour when confronted with some of the outlandish rumours about his penchant for practicing exotic sexual rituals upon young women in his basement! – and because while he wants to protect Ursula, he recognises her need to act on behalf of her deceased friend and therefore doesn’t try to keep her wrapped in cotton wool.
The problem, as I said above, is with Ms Underwood’s portrayal of him. She doesn’t appear to have a wide vocal range when it comes to pitch, so she isn’t able to alter that very much and instead makes Slater sound a bit gruff – which is fine – but in trying to adopt a more resonant tone, she makes him sound elderly, puffed-up and portly most of the time. This being the case, the more flirtatious portions of dialogue just fall flat, and she has also completely missed the dry humour he displays, which is one of his most attractive qualities. The secondary male characters are not well performed either – and I admit I found myself laughing at the New York accent adopted for the villain of the piece, which sounds like it was picked up from “Gangsters ‘R’ Us”.
Overall, Ms Underwood’s performance is almost too enthusiastic. Her voice is naturally bright and she rarely varies her timbre for any of the characters, so the whole thing sounds as though it’s stepped straight out of “Girl’s Own Adventures”, complete with jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer.
I can’t recommend this audiobook, because I found the performance so difficult to listen to. I may read the book at some point as I suspect there’s a decent story there, but when I want to listen to Amanda Quick in audio, I’ll be returning to Michael Page’s narration of The Paid Companion (sadly, no longer available), because that’s the yardstick by which all the others are judged. By me, at any rate.