Career diplomat Alec Halsey has been elevated to a marquessate he doesn’t want. His lover has decided she won’t marry him after all. What’s more, the suspicion that he murdered his brother still lingers in London drawing rooms. So returning to London after seven months’ seclusion may have been a mistake.
Alec’s foreboding deepens when a nobody vicar drops dead at a party-political dinner, he witnesses the very public humiliation of an up-and-coming portrait painter, and his rabble-rousing uncle Plantagenet is bashed and left for dead in a laneway. When the vicar’s true identity is revealed, Alec suspects the man was poisoned. But who would want a seemingly harmless man of God murdered, and why?
Rating: A+ for narration; B+ for content
In Deadly Affair, the second book in Lucinda Brant’s series of Alec Halsey Mysteries, listeners are again immersed in the world of Georgian London so skilfully evoked by the author, whose love for and detailed research into the period shine through at every turn. Her descriptions of the sights, sounds – and smells! – of the homes of the rich, the back-street slums, the coffee houses; and of the silks, velvets and lace adorning the fashions of the day put the listener right into the middle of the action and make it easy to picture the locations and characters in the mind’s eye.
Eschewing the opulence of colour and decoration espoused by the ton in favour of severe black, like a raven amid a muster of peacocks, is the austerely handsome and intelligent Alec Halsey, career diplomat and brother to an earl. In the previous book, Deadly Engagement, listeners learned of the long and deeply held enmity between Alec and his brother and now, following the earl’s death, Alec is poised to inherit a title he doesn’t want but cannot refuse. Even worse for him, the title is elevated to a marquessate, and the new Marquess Halsey then buries himself at his country estate for seven months while he attends to various family matters and estate business. During this time, rumours begin to circulate which suggest Alec is responsible for the death of his brother; and if that isn’t bad enough, his recently re-kindled love affair with the woman he’s loved for years has taken a turn for the worse.
Upon his return to London, Alec attends a dinner party hosted by an old schoolmate, Sir Charles Weir, member of parliament and protégé of the Foreign Secretary, the powerful and influential Duke of Cleveley. Alec finds himself seated next to the Reverend Blackwell, a congenial, somewhat scruffy older gentleman who seems rather out of place among this particular gathering. The evening is not quite over when Blackwell suddenly becomes unwell, and then, to the shock of everyone present, dies of what appears to be a heart attack. But Alec is suspicious, especially as, shortly before the reverend’s death, he had overheard Cleveley’s stepson telling Sir Charles that he suspected Blackwell of blackmailing the duke. But with nothing else to go on, Alec can do no more, even when the rumour-mill kicks into gear once more and starts pointing the finger at him as the architect of Blackwell’s demise. Once a murderer, always a murderer, it seems.
A few days later, Alec attends a painting exhibition at which another incident connected to the duke’s family only serves to enhance his suspicions. One of the artworks –a portrait of a young woman and her daughter – is shown to have been maliciously defaced, its subject purported to be a lady of good birth upon whom the duke’s stepson, George Stanton had forced his attentions. Sir Charles asks Alec to look into the matter as he is concerned for the damage that could be done to his patron should the truth of Stanton’s behaviour be revealed.
Lucinda Brant has crafted a clever and intriguing mystery in which she very skilfully pulls together her seemingly disparate plot threads to reach a thoroughly satisfying conclusion with a couple of plot twists I most definitely did not see coming. There are a number of secondary characters and familial connections upon which much of the story turns, and I admit that I had a little trouble keeping track of them all at first. As the story progressed this became much easier, but this is definitely an audiobook where the listener needs to be fully engaged so as to remember who is who and who is related to whom. Fortunately, however, engagement is not a problem because Alex Wyndham’s performance is so very good as to make it an easy matter to concentrate and become fully invested in the story.
It’s probably not necessary to have read or listened to Deadly Engagement in order to enjoy and understand Deadly Affair, but that book does lay out the basis for the romantic relationship that runs through both books in the series so far, that between Alec and Selina Jamison-Lewis, the woman he’d loved years before but been prevented from marrying when her family made her marry a wealthy, older and abusive man. At the end of the previous book, Alec and Selina have re-kindled their romance, but in this one, things between them have started to fall apart. We’re told that they spent a blissful week together (in bed!) in Paris, but that they parted acrimoniously when Selina refused Alec’s proposal of marriage. So the romance in Deadly Affair, such as it is, is really treading water, with Alec unable to understand why Selina rejected him and Selina hesitant to confide in him and risk his leaving her forever.
Another warning: while the mystery surrounding the defaced painting and Blackwell’s murder is solved by the end, the epilogue is actually a massive cliffhanger which is a lead-in to the next book, Deadly Peril which will be released this Autumn. So if you don’t want to be left hanging, perhaps you might not want to listen to the epilogue just yet!
When I listened to Deadly Engagement, I was extremely impressed with Alex Wyndham’s narration, which, barring one or two very minor niggles, was absolutely excellent. He is a well-known face on British television, having appeared in various productions including most recently, the WW1 set drama The Crimson Field – but he does not have a large number of audiobooks to his credit, and past experience has shown me that well-known screen actors do not always make good audiobook performers. Thankfully, however, Mr Wyndham very quickly put any fears I might have had on that score to rest, and in fact, his performance here is even better than in the previous audiobook in the series . The narrative is well-paced and clearly enunciated and each character is voiced distinctly and appropriately using a variety of tone, pitch and accent. My Wyndham’s own smooth, rich baritone depicts Alec Halsey to perfection, revealing him as a man of great intelligence, wit and passion, and I continue to be impressed with the way he portrays the female characters without resorting to falsetto or making them sound screechy. He is equally good in the “character” roles, such as Alec’s bluff uncle Plantagenet, or the boorish, whining George Stanton; and his portrayal of the villain of the piece as a softly spoken, smooth tongued manipulator is excellent.
I really can’t fault his performance, which is simply outstanding all round. He has now narrated three of Lucinda Brant’s books, and there are more to come with the release of her Roxton Family Saga stories over the next few months, plus more Alec Halsey mysteries. This listener is hooked and eager for more.