As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.
But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.
Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…
The Art of Theft is the eagerly awaited fourth book in Sherry Thomas’ superb series of historical mysteries starring Charlotte Holmes, a most unusual young woman whose keen, logical mind and incredible deductive skills would have been completely disregarded in Victorian England had she not invented the infirm but brilliant brother Sherlock who is – in name only of course – the greatest detective the nation has ever seen. While each book in the series has a central mystery that is solved by the end, there are a number of overarching plot-threads and recurring characters which mean it’s probably not the best idea to pick up The Art of Theft without having read the other novels in the series; readers will get much more out of the wonderfully intricate characterisation and the various relationships between the characters by starting at the beginning with book one, A Study in Scarlet Women. Because of the way the books are interlinked, there will be spoilers for the rest of the series in this review.
The aftermath of the tumultuous events of The Hollow of Fear sees Lord Ingram Ashburton in the country looking after his children, Mrs. Watson in Paris with her niece, Miss Olivia Holmes nearing the completion of her Sherlock Holmes story, and Miss Charlotte Holmes helping to settle her eldest sister, Bernadette, whom she removed from a home, into her new surroundings. It’s a brief period of quiet that is broken when Charlotte receives a request for help from someone identifying themselves only as A Traveler from Distant Lands.
Deciding she needs a distraction – from caring for her sister and from pondering the shifting nature of her relationship with her long-time friend (and now, former lover) Lord Ingram – Charlotte arranges to meet this traveler, correctly assuming the request for help to have come from a woman in need. Her visitor proves to be none other than an Indian maharani, who also turns out to be the first client ever to decline to use Sherlock Holmes’ services. Charlotte immediately deduces that this is because the maharani needs someone who is able to do more than investigate; and her supposition is borne out not long afterwards when she and Mrs. Watson – who has confessed to Charlotte that she and the maharani had been lovers once upon a time – visit the maharani at her hotel to offer their assistance.
The lady is still resistant, but when Charlotte most ably demonstrates that she does indeed possess the skills the maharani needs to help with her current predicament, she explains that she is being blackmailed, and that she has been given specific instructions as to what to do in order to receive a packet of letters she does not wish seen by unfriendly eyes. Every yuletide, an exclusive and extravagant art sale is held at Château Vaudrieu, just outside Paris. The cream of French society flocks there, as do art connoisseurs, manufacturers, millionaires and princes from around the world – and the maharani’s letters are hidden in the back of a painting by Van Dyck. She needs someone to steal the painting in order to retrieve the letters – and given the château’s location and the amount of security that surrounds the event, it will be no easy task.
Charlotte is certain that the maharani has not told them everything, but even so, she enlists the help of Lord Ingram and Mr. Stephen Marbleton, and soon they, together with Mrs. Watson and Olivia are crossing the channel and travelling to Paris, where they will meet up with one of Lord Ingram’s friends and allies, Lieutenant Attwood. An initial reconnaissance mission of the château undertaken by Mr. Marbleton and Lord Ingram reveals that there Is much more going on there than preparations for a masquerade ball and grand art sale. Before long our intrepid band is plunged into something that goes far beyond simple blackmail – and which will once again see them pitting their wits against the mysterious Moriarty, the shadowy criminal mastermind whose very existence has slowly become irrevocably intertwined with that of our protagonists.
If you’ve followed the series – and have followed my reviews of it – you may be asking yourself why I’ve not graded this book quite as highly as the last couple. I did struggle with the grading because this whole series is more than a head and shoulders above almost every other similar series out there, and Sherry Thomas’ writing is so wonderfully clever and precise. I liked pretty much everything about the book – the developments in the relationship between Stephen Marbleton and Olivia, which is plagued by seemingly insurmountable difficulties; the inclusion of a past, lesbian love affair for Mrs. Watson and the subtle discussions of colonialism and the British Raj; and I was pleased to see Charlotte starting to face up to the truth of her feelings for Lord Ingram, and the uncertainty she’s feeling as to how they can return to their old, comfortable association now they’ve been (albeit very briefly) lovers. The mystery is as detailed, complex and well-executed as ever, and I enjoyed the ensemble nature of the story – including the appearance of Lieutenant Leighton Attwood from the author’s My Beautiful Enemy (and a nice nod to that novel’s heroine). But after the drama of The Hollow of Fear and its late-book revelations about Lord Ingram’s (soon-to-be ex-) wife, his brother’s betrayal, and the steps forward and steps back in the complicated relationship between Lord Ingram and Charlotte, The Art of Theft sometimes felt as though it was treading water somewhat. The characters face physical danger, for sure, but the stakes simply don’t seem as high for them personally as in the previous book and I wasn’t as completely gripped by this story as I was by previous instalments. I suspect Ms. Thomas is keeping her powder dry, though. Looking at the bigger picture; with the middle book (The Hollow of Fear) of a five book series reaching a high point in the story arc, it makes sense that following book (The Art of Theft) would be a kind of ‘interlude’ or transition before heading into the finale, which I am sure is going to be a corker, given the cliffhanger at the end of the last chapter of this one!**
Still, with all that said, The Art of Theft is a cracking tale, a sophisticated, fantastically well-conceived mystery featuring richly-detailed settings and fully rounded, multi-faceted characters whose relationship are drawn with considerable skill and insight. It may not be my favourite of the series, but it’s still a terrific read, and one I’m more than happy to recommend.
**Note: Since this review was posted, the author has informed me that she has plans for more than five books in total, and that “book 3 isn’t the middle of the arc, but more like the turning point at the end of act 1.”