Winter 1763. Alec, Lord Halsey is sent on a diplomatic mission to Midanich, imperial outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, to bargain for the freedom of imprisoned friends. Midanich is a place of great danger and dark secrets; a country at civil war; ruled by a family with madness in its veins. For Alec it is a place of unspeakable memories from which he barely escaped and vowed never to return. But return he must, if he is to save the lives of Emily St. Neots and Sir Cosmo Mahon.
In a race against time, Alec and the English delegation journey across the icy wasteland for the castle fortress where Emily and Cosmo are imprisoned. The severe winter weather is as much an enemy as the soldiers of the opposing armies encamped along the way. And as members of Alec’s party begin to disappear into the night, he begins to suspect it is not the freezing conditions but that a murderer lurks amongst them. Awaiting him at his destination is the Margrave and his sister, demanding nothing less than Alec’s head on a pike.
Deadly Peril, the third of Lucinda Brant’s Georgian era Alec Halsey Mysteries, is possibly the best yet. And that’s saying something, because the preceding books – Deadly Engagement and Deadly Affair are both excellent, engrossing reads boasting tightly written, well thought-out plots, a colourful and strongly drawn cast of characters, a bitter-sweet romance and, of course, a compelling hero in the form of Alec Halsey himself. Urbane, handsome and fiercely intelligent, Halsey is very much his own man, refusing to cower in the face of the gossip that continues to circulate which suggest he may have been responsible for the death of his brother, the deeply unpleasant Earl of Delvin. Recently elevated to a marquessate he doesn’t want, Alec is still trying to adjust to his exalted position – and now, his past is about to catch up with him in the worst possible way.
The epilogue to Deadly Affair left readers on a nail-biting cliffhanger. Not only has Alec just discovered the reason the woman he loves rejected his proposal of marriage, but he learns that his closest friend, Sir Cosmo Mahon and the lady for whom he was acting as escort, Miss Emily St. Neots, have been forcibly detained during their European travels, and have been imprisoned in the small German principality of Midanich. In the previous stories, we learned that one of Alec’s earliest overseas diplomatic postings was to Midanich, and also that something went terribly wrong during his time there, something which led to his incarceration in the stronghold of Castle Herzfeld. His subsequent escape from the “inescapable” fortress has become the stuff of legend, yet he was lucky to get out of the place alive, and has no wish to return there. But the new Margrave, Prince Ernst, is adamant that he will only negotiate with Alec for the release of Cosmo and Emily – so there is no question that Alec will return, even if, as he suspects, it may cost him his life.
The people of Midanich have suffered much in recent years, having been occupied by the French in the Seven Years’ War, and then by the English. The political landscape is rapidly changing, too, with alliances being made and broken; and across the border, the powerful electorate of Hanover with its links to the English throne looms large. The recent death of the old Margrave has led to a civil war, with supporters of Prince Ernst on one side and those of his half-brother, Prince Viktor, on the other. Ernst is known to be unstable and worse, falling more and more deeply under the influence of his insane half-sister, Princess Joanna. In the depths of winter, the people are freezing and starving, and the punishments meted out for even the smallest infarction are brutal. The port town of Emden Is loyal to Ernst because it is controlled by his army, but the place is a powder keg waiting to ignite – and it is to the middle of this hot bed of political and military dispute that Alec returns to Midanich for the first time in over a decade.
This is a mystery, so I’m not going to spoil the plot by saying much more about it save that it’s incredibly well done and has plenty of – I was going to say “twists and turns”, but I think “shocks” is a more apt word! – along the way. The research that has gone into the creation of the fictional principality of Midanich is truly impressive; in fact, I had to look it up to see if it was a real place, because Ms Brant’s descriptions of the landscapes, the architecture and the sights, sounds and smells are so convincing. The winter setting, too, is used to excellent effect, as the bleakness of the long stretches of flat plain and marshland seem to echo the emotions of the characters as they come closer and closer to what will surely be a life or death confrontation.
Alec has never shared the truth of what happened during his time in Midanich with anyone, although rumours of his rather colourful romantic past have continued to dog him over the years, and he freely admits to having been a “womanising idiot” in his younger days. When that truth is finally revealed, I felt as though I’d been stunned with a brick – in the best possible way, because I hadn’t seen it coming. The repercussions of Alec’s actions have continued to resonate through the years, and while he recognises the necessity of finally burying the past and setting things to rights, the prospect of re-living some of his worst days is not one he relishes.
I should say that amid all the mystery and intrigue there is, at long last, the prospect of happiness on the horizon for Alec and Selina Jamieson-Lewis; there are a couple of nice supporting turns from gruff Uncle Plantagenet and Her Grace of Romney-St. Neots, who is Selina’s aunt, plus a well-rounded cast of secondary characters, from the opportunistic British Consul, who has his own reasons for wanting to bring Alec down, to the Colonel of the Palace Guard, who may not be all he seems.
Lucinda Brant has once again constructed a deliciously complex story that is immensely readable and completely un-put-down-able. Her writing is a joy to read; she never talks down to her readers and allows us to follow such clues as she allows without feeling the need to drop anvils on our heads or explain everything at regular intervals. The dénouement is as chilling as it is gobsmacking; and although I will say that I had an inkling of where things were headed, she kept me guessing right up until the last minute, and then completely wrong-footed me.
If you’re looking to read a gripping, intelligently written and skilfully crafted historical mystery in the near future, then you need look no further than Deadly Peril. I promise you won’t regret it.
You can find my interview with Lucinda Brant HERE.