Scotland, 1831. After a tumultuous courtship complicated by three deadly inquiries, Lady Kiera Darby is thrilled to have found both an investigative partner and a fiancé in Sebastian Gage. But with her well-meaning—and very pregnant—sister planning on making their wedding the event of the season, Kiera could use a respite from the impending madness.
Commissioned to paint the portrait of Lady Drummond, Kiera is saddened when she recognizes the pain in the baroness’s eyes. Lord Drummond is a brute, and his brusque treatment of his wife forces Kiera to think of the torment caused by her own late husband.
Kiera isn’t sure how to help, but when she finds Lady Drummond prostrate on the floor, things take a fatal turn. The physician called to the house and Lord Drummond appear satisfied to rule her death natural, but Kiera is convinced that poison is the real culprit.
Now, armed only with her knowledge of the macabre and her convictions, Kiera intends to discover the truth behind the baroness’s death—no matter what, or who, stands in her way…
This is the fourth book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of historical mysteries featuring Lady Keira Derby and her gorgeous but enigmatic partner-in-investigation, Sebastian Gage. At the end of A Grave Matter (the previous book in this series) readers were at last treated to the thing that many of us have been waiting for since The Anatomist’s Wife – namely the resolution of the slow-burn romance between the protagonists which has built gradually during the three murder investigations they have solved together. I admit that I’m here as much for the romantic angle as for the mysteries, which have been well-written and constructed, but even though I enjoyed A Study in Death, I have to admit to feeling the teeniest bit disappointed overall.
By the time the book opens, Keira and Gage have been engaged for a few weeks, and Keira’s heavily pregnant sister, Alana, Lady Cromarty, is keen to make their wedding the social event of the season – which isn’t really what the engaged couple wants. But Alana, who was previously warned of the danger of another pregnancy following the difficult delivery of her third child, is desperately trying not to worry about her upcoming confinement; and if choosing flowers, menus and wedding invitations helps provide a distraction, then Keira is prepared to go along with whatever her sister suggests.
In the meantime, Keira has been engaged to paint the portrait of Lady Drummond, a lovely, kind and well-liked lady a few years her senior. Lord Drummond is much older than his wife, and treats her abominably, something Keira relates to strongly given her own past experience of an abusive husband, and she thus feels a kinship to the lady. When Keira arrives at the Drummond’s residence for a session one morning, it’s to find the house in uproar and its mistress writing in agony upon the floor. There is nothing Keira – or anybody – can do, but when the doctor declares the cause of death to be apoplexy, Keira is incredulous. Nothing she witnessed in the woman’s final moments was suggestive of such a thing, and the little information she is able to glean at the time points elsewhere – but both Lord Drummond and the doctor refuse to listen.
When Keira tells Gage what happened and announces her intention of finding Lady Drummond’s murderer, he is very supportive – but gently points out that before they can embark upon a hunt for the killer, they have to actually prove she was murdered in the first place.
The mystery is thus twofold; Keira and Gage have to prove their suspicions of murder are correct as well as ferret out the identity of the killer, and all this makes for a very intriguing mystery, which I enjoyed very much. I didn’t guess whodunit until near the end, and the method used to carry out the crime is an unusual but perfectly plausible one.
As well as working to solve the mystery, Keira and Gage have a number of other issues to work through on a personal level, and it’s in this area that the book is less successful.
Readers of the series will have watched Keira gradually emerge from the cocoon she’d woven about herself following her late husband’s death and as a way of avoiding the terrible rumours that circulated about her when it was discovered that she had been – albeit unwillingly – illustrating the text book on anatomy he was writing. She has gradually become more confident as a person and in her abilities as an investigator, and her willingness to put her fate into the hands of another man shows just how far she has come since we first met her. The problem in this book, though, is that her relationship with Gage is just treading water and the story rehashes many of the same issues Keira exhibited in A Grave Matter. She loves Gage very much, but is still wary of marriage; she knows deep down that he will never hurt her, but her past experience scarred her badly and she is incredibly nervous of taking that final step. It seems to me that sometimes, she takes out that nervousness on Gage, almost to see how far she can push him – and it is fortunate for her that he knows her well enough to know what she’s doing and to make allowances for it. It’s true that Gage also has trust issues and a similar reluctance to share when it comes to personal matters, but Keira sometimes expects more than she is prepared to give in that area, which I started to find somewhat annoying.
Conflict from a different source is introduced when Gage’s authoritarian father suddenly arrives in Edinburgh, furious with his son for disobeying his edict that he marry the wealthy heiress he has picked out for him. Lord Gage makes clear his disapproval of Keira in no uncertain terms, and insists on trying to cut her out of the investigation, particularly as Lord Drummond is an old friend and he (Lord Gage) has his own secrets to keep.
A Study in Death is an enjoyable story and an engrossing mystery which boasts a well-drawn cast of secondary characters and a strong sense of time and place. Unlike the last book, however, the romance has definitely been pushed into the back seat, which is perhaps natural, given that the central couple is engaged to be married. Keeping a romance going once the UST has become RST is always difficult, but Ms Huber is a talented writer, and I’m hoping that perhaps the next book – featuring Mr and Mrs Sebastian Gage – may provide the change of pace and direction needed to keep the series fresh.