Calista Langley operates an exclusive ‘introduction; agency in Victorian London, catering to respectable ladies and gentlemen who find themselves alone in the world. But now, a dangerously obsessed individual has begun sending her trinkets and gifts suitable only for those in deepest mourning – a black mirror, a funeral wreath, a ring set with black jet stone. Each is engraved with her initials.
Desperate for help and fearing that the police will be of no assistance, Calista turns to Trent Hastings, a reclusive author of popular crime novels. Believing that Calista may be taking advantage of his lonely sister, who has become one of her clients, Trent doesn’t trust her. Scarred by his past, he’s learned to keep his emotions at bay, even as an instant attraction threatens his resolve.
But as Trent and Calista comb through files of rejected clients in hopes of identifying her tormentor, it becomes clear that the danger may be coming from Calista’s own secret past – and that only her death will satisfy the stalker…
Amanda Quick’s latest historical mystery is sure to please her many fans, but I’m rather glad she doesn’t publish more than one novel a year as there’s no denying that her books are formulaic. If you enjoy the formula, then they will no doubt work for you and if you don’t… well, you’ll probably have worked that out by now and be reading something else!
I’ve not read a vast number of her books, but I’ve read the last few, and while I’ve enjoyed them, I can’t say that they were especially memorable. In each case, we have a heroine who lives, for some reason, on the fringes of society, but who is clever, determined and independent of spirit – and, in the case of the virgins, sexually curious. The heroes are fiercely intelligent, sometimes reclusive, and almost always haunted by some event in their pasts. Our heroine in ’Til Death Us Do Part is Calista Langley, who lives with her younger brother in the house left them by their grandmother. Unfortunately, however, the grand house didn’t come with the income necessary for its upkeep, so Calista had to devise a discreet way of making money, because of course, a young lady couldn’t possibly go into trade. With the house their only asset, she hit upon the idea of holding regular salons as a way of introducing single men and women who are looking for friendship or a like-minded companion – and perhaps, romance.
The introductions business is successful, providing Calista and her brother – who helps her by investigating her potential clients to make sure there are no fortune hunters or bad eggs trying to sign up – with a decent living. A year earlier, Calista herself had almost become engaged to a handsome young man by the name of Nestor Kettering, who mistakenly believed her to be a wealthy heiress. On discovering she wasn’t, he promptly left her and married a real heiress – but now, a year later, wants to rekindle his relationship with Calista, who wants nothing to do with him.
To make matters worse, Calista has begun to receive some most unwelcome and rather macabre gifts. She has no idea who is sending them, but the fact that they are items related to mourning is very unnerving, and worse, the most recent item was placed in her bedroom, which naturally makes her feel nervous and somewhat insecure.
She is somewhat unnerved by Kettering’s vehemence, but is saved from further pestering by the arrival of her next potential client, the author of a popular series of detective novels. Trent Hastings is intense, self-possessed and attractive in spite of the scars that mar one side of his jaw and hands – and Calista is strongly drawn to him in a way she never was to her former suitor or has been to any other man. As their acquaintance progresses, she finds herself confiding in him about the funerary items she has been receiving, and soon, the pair join forces in order to discover who is threatening her.
While the novel is certainly formulaic, it’s also peopled with an engaging set of secondary characters; and the author’s incorporation of the various macabre funerary traditions which sprang up in the late Victorian period works very well within the context of the story. Death masks, bells for the insides of coffins, even photographs which posed the dead with the living; the Victorians did death in grisly style and Ms Quick makes the most of her chosen backdrop.
While the story certainly has plenty of twists and turns – which I’m not going to reveal – there is a strange juxtaposition of complexity and simplicity within it. The complexities come as the different angles to the investigation into the identity of Calista’s “stalker” are revealed, and that makes for a satisfying plot; but the various discoveries made by Calista and Trent are just too easily come by, they hardly ever come to a wrong conclusion and then, the identity of the villain comes almost out of the blue in the very last chapters. The romance between Trent and Calista is a bit of a disappointment as it’s very secondary to the mystery plot, although there’s just about enough there for it to be convincing and they are a well-matched couple.
I appreciated the “in-jokes” regarding authorship that Ms Quick inserts through Trent; his male readers aren’t wild about the insertion of a female character in to his latest novel, whereas his female readers are excited at the prospect of a woman helping the hero in his investigations and at a possible romantic involvement. As Trent so clearly recognises, you can’t please all the people all the time, and his wry remarks to the effect that “everyone’s a critic” are nice wink on the part of the author.
I did enjoy the book, and I’m sure Ms Quick’s many fans will do the same. If you’re looking for an historical mystery that isn’t going to make your brain hurt and the formulaic elements I’ve mentioned don’t bother you, then you might want to add this to your TBR. Although, given the retail price, (£7.99 for the ebook in the UK) you might want to wait for a sale or to get it from the library.