Dinner Most Deadly (John Pickett Mysteries #4) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

dinner most deadly

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, returns from Scotland restless and out of sorts, her friend Emily Dunnington plans a select dinner party with half a dozen male guests from whom Julia may choose a lover.

But Emily’s dinner ends in disaster when one of her guests, Sir Reginald Montague, is shot dead.

When Bow Street Runner John Pickett is summoned to Emily’s house, he is faced with the awkward task of informing Lady Fieldhurst that their recent masquerade as a married couple (Family Plot) has resulted in their being legally wed.

Beset by distractions – including the humiliating annulment procedure and the flattering attentions of Lady Dunnington’s pretty young housemaid – Pickett must find the killer of a man whom everyone has reason to want dead.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

Note: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the charming young Bow Street Runner John Pickett continues apace with the fourth full-length novel in the series, Dinner Most Deadly. It’s another enjoyable mix of murder-mystery and romance, but here, the romantic angle is as much the focus as the mystery, as John and the love of his life, Lady Julia Fieldhurst, struggle to deal with the ramifications of their recent masquerade as Mr. and Mrs. Pickett in book three, Family Plot. This instalment is particularly angsty in terms of their continuing relationship; John has been in love with Julia since they met in book one, In Milady’s Chamber, and while it’s taken Julia longer to realise the truth of her feelings for the thoughtful, insightful and achingly sweet young man who is so devoted to her, she is finally starting to see them for what they really are. But… a viscountess and a thief-taker who earns the princely sum of twenty-five shillings a week? The social divide between them is too great to permit even the merest nodding acquaintance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Advertisements

His Wicked Charm (Mad Morelands #6) by Candace Camp (audiobook) – Narrated by Will Thorne


This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s too prim.

Lilah Holcutt dislikes Constantine Moreland from the moment she meets him. He may be handsome, but he’s frivolous, rash, impulsive and, worst of all, a flirt. Now that Con’s twin brother has married Lilah’s best friend, she’s seeing way more of Con than she’d like. And when Con’s sisters are inexplicably kidnapped, Lilah’s own curiosity and stubbornness get the better of her, and she finds herself swept into Con’s investigation.

He’s indifferent to propriety.

Con knows that Lilah hates him — he just wishes she weren’t so devastatingly beautiful, that he weren’t so attracted to her. Especially since they’re working closely together to solve the kidnapping, an adventure that leads them to Lilah’s peculiar childhood home, Barrow House, which sits atop an ancient fen and features an eerie maze on its grounds.

They’ll have to join together to conquer a sinister force.

The more Con and Lilah uncover, the more they’re convinced that the answers lie buried deep within Barrow House — answers to a mystery darker than either of them could ever have realized.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

This is the sixth book in Candace Camp’s Mad Morelands series, which originally comprised four books, but which has been expanded to include stories for the two youngest Moreland siblings, twins Alex and Con. His Wicked Charm opens not long after His Sinful Touch ended; I wasn’t overly impressed with the storyline of that book (my content grade was C+) which I found clichéd and somewhat clumsily executed. His Wicked Charm is an improvement, mostly due to the fact that Con is a more engaging character than Alex – Con is lively and funny where Alex was quite dour – but even so, the story meanders and lacks focus, and the paranormal elements are rather corny and melodramatic.

Constantine Moreland and Lilah Holcutt disliked each other from the moment they met. She thinks he’s too impulsive and not serious enough, and he thinks she’s too proper and bound by convention, but now Con’s brother has married Lilah’s best friend, they have to play nice. Needless to say, they are rarely successful; Con delights in needling Lilah by flirting with her outrageously, and most of their interactions end up as arguments. So, it amazes both of them to find that when the situation calls for it, they can actually set those differences aside and work together to achieve a desired outcome – in this case the rescue of Con’s mother and sisters, who are abducted off the street during a demonstration in support of female emancipation. Lilah insists on accompanying Con when he sets off in pursuit, but it turns out that the ladies are on the verge of rescuing themselves when the couple arrives (as detailed in the short story included at the end of the audiobook, Their Unexpected Adventure), but they still have to work out who kidnapped them and why.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Girl in the Moss (Angie Pallorino #3) by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Disgraced ex-cop Angie Pallorino is determined to make a new start for herself as a private investigator. But first, she and her lover, newly promoted homicide detective James Maddocks, attempt a quiet getaway to rekindle a romance struggling in the shadows of their careers. The peace doesn’t last long when human skeletal remains are found in a nearby mossy grove.

This decades-old mystery is just what Angie needs to establish her new career—even as it thrusts her and Maddocks back into the media spotlight, once again endangering their tenuous relationship.

Then, when Angie’s inquiry into the old crime intersects with a cold case from her own policing past—one that a detective on Maddocks’s new team is working—the investigation takes a startling twist. It puts more than Angie’s last shot at redemption and a future with Maddocks at risk. The mystery of the girl in the moss could kill her.

Rating: B+

In this final instalment in her trio of novels featuring Angie Pallorino, Loreth Anne White delivers another compulsively readable, complex mystery that hooks your interest from the get-go and gradually tightens its grip until you literally can’t put the book down.   It’s like reading a snowball; an impactful start sees it start rolling down the hill, gradually getting larger as it picks up and encompasses other clues, plot-threads and information and travels faster and faster until it hits bottom to reach an explosive and immensely satisfying dénouement.  Here, that snowball starts rolling when former detective Angie Pallorino and her boyfriend, Detective James Maddocks are taking a four day trip down the Nahamish River on a quiet, romantic getaway.  It’s been a tough few months for Angie, who was busted down to a desk job after she was judged to have used excessive force to take down a serial killer.  Furious and frustrated, Angie broke the twelve-month probation imposed upon her and went rogue, continuing to work on the case of the bar-code girls (in book two, The Lullaby Girl) which also led her to her discovering the truth about her parentage and true identity as the daughter of a sex-trafficker and major crimelord.  Unable to return to the job she loved, Angie is trying to pick up the pieces of her life, and is now working towards getting her PI license, but given the intense publicity generated by the news of her identity, her backstory as the “angel’s cradle baby” and her part in bringing down a major sex-trafficking ring, there are almost no PI agencies willing to hire her (she’s too high-profile) so she can get the required number of hours under her belt she needs before she can branch out on her own.

Things between Angie and Maddocks are uncertain, too.  He’s the golden boy of the Metro Victoria PD and has been appointed to head up a prestigious new task-force while she is struggling to find out who she is if she isn’t a cop.  She knows she loves Maddocks and wants to be with him, but Angie is subconsciously pulling back – and Maddocks knows her well enough to realise it but is worried that she’ll run if she gets the chance.  Their relationship isn’t in the best place, but they hope that a little time spent together with nothing to interrupt or distract them will get them back on track.  Unfortunately, that is not to be when on their last night at the camp, a skeleton is found near the banks of the river.  It’s going to be the morning before local law-enforcement can get to such a remote location and secure the scene, so Maddocks and Angie spend what should have been a romantic evening, complete with gourmet dinner, wine and hot tub, camped out next to a crime scene.

The remains are eventually identified as belonging to a young woman named Jasmine Gulati who died while on a fishing trip on the Nahamish some twenty-four years earlier.  She had been part of a group of women anglers who were taking part in a documentary being filmed by Rachel Hart, who had chosen her subjects to be from different walks of life and in different stages of their lives.  Much as the producers of shows like Big Brother do today, Rachel had hoped that their differences would produce interesting viewing – but after Jasmine’s death, the project was canned and the documentary never appeared.

A while later, Angie is surprised to receive a phone call from a retired judge, Jilly Monaghan, who explains that Jasmine was her granddaughter and offers Angie a large fee if she will find out what really happened to her.  Her death has been ruled accidental, but the judge wants to know if that is really the case or not; either way, she wants the closure that knowing the truth will bring.

Angie’s investigation soon leads her to suspect that Jasmine’s death wasn’t an accident at all, and as she digs deeper, she exposes the web of secrets, lies and conspiracies that have lain buried in the small community of Port Ferris for almost twenty five years.  The mystery is gripping; tightly constructed and incredibly well-written, and the author makes fantastic use of her wilderness setting, which is both beautiful and terrifying, at the same time brilliantly conveying the insular nature of a small, close-knit community such as this one.  The men resent Angie and what they see as her interference, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their own.  It would be easy to laugh at this unsophisticated group of ‘hillbillies’ but no, they’re actually extremely disturbing and Angie is in real danger, probably more than she’s ever been, considering that she’s no longer a cop and doesn’t have the weight of authority behind her – or a gun.

There’s an intriguing secondary plotline in which Maddocks sets up a new cold case unit placing Angie’s former partner, Kjel Holgerson, at its head.  This storyline serves to bring us back neatly to some of the events of The Drowned Girls, but it also opens up the possibility of more stories set in this ‘universe’;  I would certainly not be averse to reading more about the enigmatic and oddly endearing Holgerson.  I also liked the author’s subtle exploration of the ethics of cold cases; in a situation such as this one, where one family needs closure, another is ripped apart, so it’s difficult – or impossible – to achieve a balance.  But Angie is, as ever, focused on finding the truth, no matter how hard it is.  Her own experiences have taught her that it’s better to know and deal than to deny, and ultimately, the needs of justice have to be served.

My one niggle about the book is that Maddocks is (necessarily) MIA for almost all of it, even though there’s no question he’s a huge presence in Angie’s life and her desire to come to him as a woman who knows who she is and where she’s going is the impetus for her becoming involved in the Gulati case.  Still, the brief glimpses we get of their relationship are well done, and while I’d have liked a bit more of them together, I think they needed the short separation in order to remind one another of exactly what they have together.

A complex, atmospheric thriller with a pervading sense of menace, especially in the second half, The Girl in the Moss is a terrific finale to a terrific series, and I really hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Angie, Maddocks, Holgerson – and Jack-O.

Dead Girl Running (Cape Charade #1) by Christina Dodd


This title may be purchased from Amazon

I have three confessions to make:
1. I’ve got the scar of gunshot on my forehead.
2. I don’t remember an entire year of my life.
3. My name is Kellen Adams…and that’s half a lie.

Girl running…from a year she can’t remember, from a husband she prays is dead, from homelessness and fear. Tough, capable Kellen Adams takes a job as assistant manager of a remote vacation resort on the North Pacific Coast. There amid the towering storms and the lashing waves, she hopes to find sanctuary. But when she discovers a woman’s dead and mutilated body, she’s soon trying to keep her own secrets while investigating first one murder…then another.

Now every guest and employee is a suspect. Every friendly face a mask. Every kind word a lie. Kellen’s driven to defend her job, her friends and the place she’s come to call home. Yet she wonders–with the scar of a gunshot on her forehead and amnesia that leaves her unsure of her own past–could the killer be staring her in the face?

Rating: D+

I enjoy a good mystery or romantic suspense novel and have been lucky enough to find some fantastically good authors in the genre who are now on my ‘must read’ list.  I’m always on the look-out for the next addition, so I eagerly picked up Christina Dodd’s Dead Girl Running, the first book in her new Cape Charade series, hoping for an intense, exciting and complex read – aaaaaand, well, let’s just say I don’t think I’ll be adding Ms. Dodd to that list of ‘must read’ authors on the strength of it.  The book turned out to contain a myriad of hackneyed tropes and plot points (and plot holes) that made it seem as though the author had too many ideas and, instead of undertaking some judicious pruning and concentrating on the one or two strongest ones, decided to throw everything at the wall and see what stuck.  What we end up with is a classic ‘base-under-siege’ type plot, a too-good-to-be-true, dull heroine, a lot (dare I say – too many) of barely two-dimensional, stereotypical secondary characters, and writing so clichéd in places that it made me wince – or laugh, which I’m sure wasn’t Ms. Dodd’s intention.

Kellen Adams was a captain in the army and served in Afghanistan before returning to the US.  She has recently taken up a position as assistant manager at the Cape Charade resort in coastal Washington state and is determined to make it her home.  When the resort owners – the elderly Leo and Annie di Luca – decide to take a holiday for the first time in ages, they leave Kellen in charge, confident in her ability to keep things running smoothly.  It’s a quiet time of year, there are not many guests booked in, so it’s just a case of keeping things ticking over until the di Lucas return.  That is, until some decomposing human remains are discovered on the grounds, which are identified as belonging to the previous assistant manager, Priscilla Carter, who disappeared without explanation less than six months earlier.  It’s impossible to keep something like that a secret from the staff and guests, and the atmosphere at the resort becomes one of fear and suspicion; everyone is a suspect and Kellen isn’t sure who she can trust.

We learn early on that Kellen isn’t actually who she says she is; she’s an abused wife whose husband tried to murder her (and died in the attempt), and who is still looking over her shoulder for any sign that her his family might be catching up with her.  She’s also the survivor of a gunshot to the head – something I found hard to credit – which caused her to lose a year of her life; she was in a coma for all that time, and after waking up confused and fearful, ran from the hospital and to an army recruiting office. We’re asked to believe the shot to the head is the reason she now has a unique mental ability to acquire, store, process and recall information, but I’m still wondering how it didn’t simply blow her brains out…  Whatever the case, having both incredibly traumatic and dramatic events happen to the same person seemed to me to be taking things a bit too far. I understand that this is the first book in a series, but in spite of all the things that have happened to her, Kellen is not a well-defined or interesting character, and I couldn’t warm to her or find anything to draw me in.

The same is true of the secondary characters, of whom there are a lot; they’re poorly defined and stereotypical, and there’s no time for the author to flesh any of them out or give them actual personalities. We’ve got a former movie star, an upbeat, preppy personal trainer of the type you want to strangle, a bitchy hostess who is bitter that she was passed over for Kellen’s job, an enigmatic (though hot) guest who says he’s an author (he isn’t) and a handful of Kellen’s army buddies now employed at the resort – and that’s less than half the list.  There has to be a fairly large pool of suspects to make the identity of the villain hard to guess, but given that there are no clues pointing to that person, I can’t see there was much of a point. In any case, the reveal comes out of the blue, but not after Kellen jumps to a completely wrong conclusion as to his identity so fast it made me wonder if I’d skipped a few pages.

The mystery plot, concerning the smuggling of valuable artefacts off the coast near the resort is interesting, and when the book concentrates solely on this aspect of the story, it’s a good read and I was eager to keep turning the pages.  But that doesn’t really happen until well into the second half of the book, and doesn’t last for long; after that, we’re back in the land of the clichéd and utterly ridiculous, which then culminates in a completely unbelievable plot twist that contradicts something explicitly stated earlier on in the book.

I’m not sure whether to categorise Dead Girl Running as ‘mystery’ or ‘romantic suspense’ because it doesn’t really fit either.  If it’s a mystery, it’s very simplistic and quite clumsily done; if romantic suspense, there’s pretty much no romance and not much suspense, so that doesn’t fit either.  The writing is generally solid, although there is a LOT of telling rather than showing, and this is especially evident in the way we’re shown Kellen’s supposedly unique mental ability working.  Whenever she meets someone, we get a ‘note card’ of what is supposedly going through her head, which lists background data on that person and her feelings about them  – which is, I suppose, an easier way of disseminating that information than actually spending time on developing that character and letting the reader get to know them; it smacks of lazy writing.

In short, Dead Girl Running is deader than a dead duck dead in the water.  Give it a miss and pick up something by Rachel Grant or Loreth Anne White instead.

Why Kill the Innocent (Sebastian St. Cyr #13) by C.S. Harris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1814. As a cruel winter holds the city in its icy grip, the bloody body of a beautiful young musician is found half-buried in a snowdrift. Jane Ambrose’s ties to Princess Charlotte, the only child of the Prince Regent and heir presumptive to the throne, panic the palace, which moves quickly to shut down any investigation into the death of the talented pianist. But Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife Hero refuse to allow Jane’s murderer to escape justice.

Untangling the secrets of Jane’s world leads Sebastian into a maze of dangerous treachery where each player has his or her own unsavory agenda and no one can be trusted. As the Thames freezes over and the people of London pour onto the ice for a Frost Fair, Sebastian and Hero find their investigation circling back to the palace and building to a chilling crescendo of deceit and death . . .

Rating: A

C.S. Harris has maintained a consistently high standard throughout her long-running Sebastian St. Cyr series of historical mysteries, but the last two or three books, in particular, have been outstanding – which is quite remarkable when one considers that this latest instalment, Why Kill the Innocent, is number thirteen.  The individual mysteries are extremely well-constructed and set against a superbly researched and realised historical background; and so far, each one has been self-contained, so that each book could be read as a standalone.  Notice I used the word could – because actually, this isn’t a series I would recommend dipping in and out of or reading out of order, because there are overarching plot threads that run from book to book you really don’t want to miss out on.  But unlike the other books in the series, the previous one – Where the Dead Lie –  left some aspects of the mystery unsolved and readers wondering whether the main villain of the was ever going to be made to pay for his crimes.  As we’re at book thirteen of a fifteen-book series, I’m guessing the answer is yes, but we’re going to have to wait a little while longer to see it!

Why Kill the Innocent is set in the winter of 1814, which is on record as being one of the coldest ever experienced in England.  On her way back from a charitable visit in the East End, Sebastian’s wife Hero stumbles – literally – on a body lying in the street, and is surprised to recognise the dead woman as Jane Ambrose, a talented musician who taught piano to a number of the children of the nobility – including Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Regent and Heir Presumptive to the throne.   It’s immediately obvious that Jane was murdered – she died from a blow to the head – and that the lack of blood around her indicates she was killed elsewhere. Hero immediately sends for her husband and for Henry Lovejoy, the magistrate from Bow Street who has aided Sebastian on a number of investigations and has become a friend; all of them know that once the news of Jane’s death is made public, the palace machinery will move fast to prevent any scandal being attached to the princess by covering up the truth and preventing any further investigation into the matter.  Or trying to – because Sebastian isn’t about to allow the brutal murder of a young woman to go unnoticed or her murderer to evade justice.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, which is utterly compelling and kept me turning the pages into the small hours. Although Jane Ambrose is dead when we meet her, the picture built up of her through the eyes of others is poignant and intriguing. A musical genius at a time when ladies were never supposed to excel at anything other than being decorative, Jane had to supress her gift for performing and composing and instead spend her time teaching others. Her marriage was not happy, and her husband’s infidelities and abuse, coupled with death of her two children from illness a year earlier eventually led to a profound change in the woman who had previously been a model wife. She was clearly a woman driven to the edge, but who, instead of falling over, found or rediscovered an inner strength that gave her the will to stand up and fight for herself and others. Her desire to protect Princess Charlotte from an enforced marriage to a man bound to make her miserable meant that Jane put herself in the middle of what proved to be deadly palace intrigue and political manoeuvring – most of it masterminded by Hero’s father, Lord Jarvis, a cold, ruthless man who will do whatever it takes to maintain his position as the power behind the throne.

As usual, Sebastian finds himself baulked at many a turn of the investigation; everyone has secrets they are determined to keep and nobody can be trusted… and those in positions of power are actively trying to prevent him from uncovering the truth which, of course turns out to have implications far more wide-reaching than he could ever have suspected.

One of the many enjoyable things about this series has been Ms. Harris’ obvious love for and knowledge of the period in which it is set. She has a splendid grasp of the volatile political situation of the time, and makes very good use of that knowledge to provide a solid historical background to her stories. In this novel, however, I think the author has outdone herself. The background to the tale, the terrible relationship between the Prince Regent and his daughter, how he almost hated her for her popularity and tried to control every aspect of her life… it’s all true. The Regent really did treat his wife in the appalling manner described, and his paranoia, his excesses, his narcissism and lack of interest in the people he ruled are all matters of record, gleaned from correspondence with friends and family. Many of the secondary characters in the story are real, or are closely based on historical figures, and many of the events – such as Princess Charlotte deliberately procrastinating over an unwanted betrothal – actually happened. All these things – and more – are seamlessly and skilfully incorporated into the story without the reader ever being subjected to info-dumps or a static history lesson – which just goes to show that truth really is stranger than fiction at times.

The setting of a London so cold that the Thames froze over is hard for the modern Londoner to envisage, but Ms. Harris’ descriptions of a city blanketed in white and the Frost Fair on the river are wonderfully evocative and paint a detailed picture in the mind of the reader of what it must have looked like. But as well as the Christmas-Card imagery, she takes care to show us the other side of the pretty picture; of the extreme hardship faced by the poor when the extraordinary weather conditions led to shortages of food and fuel.

The reparation of Sebastian’s relationship with his father continues apace, and I loved watching Sebastian’s interactions with his young son. He and Hero are obviously very much in love and are devoted to each other – yet they don’t live in each other’s pockets. They know each other very well, and the trust and confidence Sebastian places in his wife is admirable, while Hero’s ability to listen and understand have become his bedrock.

The long running plot thread concerning Sebastian’s parentage doesn’t get much screen time here and the threads left over from the previous book are also not forgotten, but both are passing mentions, which I thought a wise move given that there is more than enough here to keep the reader glued to the story. There is also, clearly, more to come from the recently widowed Jarvis and Hero’s manipulative cousin Victoria, and I can’t wait to see how things pan out.

The murder mystery is satisfyingly complex, the historical detail is fascinating and I continue to adore Sebastian St. Cyr, a character who has come such a long way since we first met him as an angry, damaged and resentful veteran of war. With its masterful storytelling, intricate plotting and intriguing characters, Why Kill the Innocent is a truly gripping read and I’m sure that fans of the series need no endorsement from me to be waiting to pounce on it upon release.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge, what greets her is far from the life of wealth and privilege she was expecting . . .

When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But with her husband dead just weeks after their marriage, her new servants resentful, and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure–a silent companion–that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of The Bridge are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition–that is, until she notices the figure’s eyes following her.

A Victorian ghost story that evokes a most unsettling kind of fear, this is a tale that creeps its way through the consciousness in ways you least expect–much like the silent companions themselves.

Rating: A-

Laura Purcell is the author of two excellent pieces of historical fiction set in Georgian England, one, Queen of Bedlam, about Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, and the other, Mistress of the Court, a fictionalised account of the life of Henrietta Howard, who became the mistress of Prince George (later King George II).   Both are excellent and eminently readable; they’re incredibly well-researched, well-written and informative without being dry.  Her latest novel, The Silent Companions, is thus a bit of a departure, a mystery/horror story in the gothic tradition that is hauntingly atmospheric and downright unsettling; if it had been a film, I suspect I’d have been watching at least part of it from behind the sofa!

When we first meet Elsie Bainbridge, she’s a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital for the Insane, and is widely believed to be a murderess.  Having been badly burned in a fire at The Bridge, the old country house she had inherited from her late husband, Rupert, she is still recovering from her injuries, and is unable to speak or remember much of what happened.  Her new doctor, Dr. Shepherd, is young, sympathetic and more progressive than some of the others who have attended her, and he encourages her to tell her story by writing it all down.  He believes that her inability to speak or remember may be the result of suppressed trauma, and that if she can tell her story in a detached way, as if speaking of someone else, it may help him to understand her better and ultimately, find ways to help her.

So Elsie, who is exhausted, worn-down and wants nothing more than to escape from the pain and awfulness of her life into laudanum induced numbness, begins to write her story, which opens in 1865, shortly after the death of the husband.  She married Rupert Bainbridge partly in order to help her brother’s struggling match factory, but found happiness in her short-lived marriage of convenience, and is now expecting Rupert’s child.  Having received news of her husband’s death, Elsie is travelling to Rupert’s family home, The Bridge, accompanied by Sarah, a poor relation of Rupert’s who came to live with them following the death of the elderly lady to whom she was a paid companion. Truth to tell, Elsie doesn’t think that much of Sarah and finds her insipid, but they are drawn together as the story progresses and the pair eventually come to depend upon and trust one another.

As they travel through the nearest village of Fayford, Elsie can practically feel the hostility coming from its inhabitants, who are, she learns later, so fearful of The Bridge – believing it was once inhabited by a witch, and that its history is littered with strange accidents and unexplained deaths –  that none of them will set foot in the place.  The few servants who work there are not locals, and are very disgruntled at the appearance of a new mistress because, Elsie suspects, it means the end of the easy life they’ve enjoyed up until now.

Exploring the house with Sarah, Elsie finds some unusual objects in the attic, several life-sized figures painted on wood and cut to shape with bevelled edges to give the impression of depth. Known as Silent Companions (or dummy boards), Elsie is initially amused by them and has a few of them moved into the house, but when they start to appear in places other than where they have been put, and more than were originally brought down are found in various locations throughout the house, both Elsie and Sarah become convinced that they represent something sinister and eventually to believe that their lives may be in danger.

The other part of the story is told through the pages of the diary of Sarah’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived during the time of King Charles I.  Anne and her husband are to be honoured by a visit from the king and queen, and Anne is shopping in the village when she notices some unusual items in one of the shops – large, cut out figures that look very lifelike and which she purchases in order to provide a whimsical diversion during the planned royal visit.  Josiah and Anne Bainbridge have a good marriage, three strapping sons and a young daughter, Hetta, who was born mute – but it quickly emerges that Anne is haunted by the circumstances under which Hetta was conceived.  Having lost her beloved sister and best friend, Mary, over a decade earlier, Anne was so desperate to have another female in her life, someone to trust and confide in, that she drank a special tisane or potion in order to make sure she conceived a girl.  But now, Anne is haunted by her actions – which could bring an accusation of witchcraft – and her husband takes care to distance himself from Hetta, expressly excluding her from the events that will take place during the king and queen’s visit.

Ms. Purcell does a terrific job of balancing the telling of the story through both timelines, and the way she shows Elsie disintegrating before our eyes is uncomfortable and masterful all at once.   She keeps us constantly on our toes, making us doubt our narrators, playing with our perceptions and questioning whether those things we have just discovered or been told are real or imagined.  If I have a criticism, it’s that the story is perhaps a little slow to start, but once it really gets going it quickly becomes gripping and completely un-putdownable – and even now, hours after finishing it, I’m still getting that feeling of breathless chills as I think back to it.  The story is permeated by feelings of unease and foreboding, and the author really knows how to ramp up the tension; the latter part of the story is a rollercoaster ride of creepiness of all kinds – and I’ll say here that there are a few descriptions that don’t spare any of the gory details and aren’t for the faint-hearted.  But without question, the book is beautifully written and the descriptions of the depressing atmosphere inside the run-down house and the dreariness of the surrounding countryside are incredibly evocative and put the reader right in the middle of those dark, oppressive corridors and damp, mist-shrouded fields; this is no idyllic English village or beautifully kept beloved family home.

We’re left with as many questions as answers by the time the story closes, and the ending is a real kicker – utterly brilliant and something I most definitely didn’t see coming.  If you need explanations and closure in your books, then you might find the final ambiguity here a little frustrating, but honestly, the last lines fit the tone of the rest of the book so perfectly, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.

If you’ve been looking for a heartily unnerving, chilling gothic ghost story, then look no further.  Just make sure you read The Silent Companions with the lights on.

A Brush With Shadows (Lady Darby #6) by Anna Lee Huber

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

July 1831. It’s been fifteen years since Sebastian Gage has set foot in Langstone Manor. Though he has shared little with his wife, Lady Kiera Darby, about his past, she knows that he planned never to return to the place of so many unhappy childhood memories. But when an urgent letter from his grandfather reaches them in Dublin, Ireland, and begs Gage to visit, Kiera convinces him to go.

All is not well at Langstone Manor. Gage’s grandfather, the Viscount Tavistock, is gravely ill, and Gage’s cousin Alfred has suddenly vanished. He wandered out into the moors and never returned. The Viscount is convinced someone or something other than the natural hazards of the moors is to blame for Alfred’s disappearance. And when Alfred’s brother Rory goes missing, Kiera and Gage must concede he may be right. Now, they must face the ghosts of Gage’s past, discover the truth behind the local superstitions, and see beyond the tricks being played by their very own eyes to expose what has happened to Gage’s family before the moors claim yet another victim…

Rating: B-

At the end of As Death Draws Near, the fifth book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of historical mysteries, the recently-wed Lady Darby and her husband, private enquiry agent Sebastian Gage, were urgently summoned to England – specifically, to Gage’s family home at Langstone Manor in Dartmoor. Gage’s cousin, Alfred, heir to their grandfather, Viscount Tavistock, has gone missing, and the elderly and ailing viscount wants Gage to find him.

Book six, A Brush with Shadows, opens with Keira and Gage arriving at the Manor after an arduous journey from Ireland (where they’d solved the case of a murdered nun), and already things are tense. Gage hasn’t visited Langstone since his mother died when he was eighteen, and he had, at that time, vowed never to set foot in the place again. He hasn’t told Keira much about his childhood – he has always been rather cagey when it comes to his past, and she has had to carefully pry information out of him at various points throughout the series – but it’s clear from what he has said that his time there wasn’t happy, and there is no love lost between her husband and his cousin. But Gage is an honourable man and isn’t about to ignore this request for help, no matter that it has come from the family from which he is estranged.

Their arrival has clearly not been prepared for, and things go pretty much downhill from then on. Gage’s aunt, Lady Vanessa is openly hostile to both him and Keira, making it clear that she knows about Keira’s background (and the scandal that continues to dog her owing to her forced involvement in her late husband’s anatomical studies – see The Anatomist’s Wife) and strongly disapproves of their marriage. Her younger son, Rory is more welcoming, while the viscount continues to tyrannise the household from his sickbed. And all of them have secrets they are desperate to keep, even at the risk of prolonging the search for Alfred who, it turns out, vanished almost a fortnight earlier.

I freely admit that the big draw – for me – of this book was the opportunity to discover more about Gage’s past.  He’s such a lovely hero – clever, well-liked, handsome, charming, and urbane, but there’s been an aura of mystery about him and the sense that he’s suffered some deep hurt that he is at pains to keep hidden.  He has always played his cards close to his chest and at times, Keira has despaired of his ever really opening up to her, but as the series has progressed he has done so occasionally – about his experiences in Greece in the war against Turkey and confessing that his mother was murdered (poisoned) by her maid – even though he finds it incredibly difficult and has taken care to pack all his most disturbing memories away behind thickly constructed mental walls. The picture of the younger Gage that emerges here is heart-breaking, but also points strongly to the man he is to become. Forced to assume the role of protector at a young age (his father was often away at sea and his mother was unwell), young Sebastian put up with insults, lies and unpleasant pranks from his cousins and his aunt’s open disdain for both himself and his mother but kept his hurt and frustration to himself so as not to cause Emma Gage any distress. He learned early in life not to rely on anyone else, and even now, continues to display that tendency; although he has learned to trust Keira and knows she is intelligent, strong and capable of looking out for herself, he can’t help wanting to protect her and shield her from unpleasantness.

This storyline is much more engaging than the central mystery, which is actually quite weak by comparison – both with Gage’s backstory and with other mysteries in the series. Ms. Huber skilfully weaves the plotline of the missing heir in and out of the threads which reveal more about Gage’s early life at Langstone and his relationships with his relatives, but taken alone, it’s very simplistic and, at times, frustrating. The viscount wants his heir found, but deliberately withholds information from Keira and Gage; his aunt and cousin do the same, there’s talk of a curse, evil pixies who lure people to their deaths on the moor and witchcraft – which all makes for a good crop of red herrings, but there is very little actual substance to the mystery until around the last quarter of the book, when the author ups the ante with another disappearance. And when the identity of the villain was revealed, my reaction was ‘huh?’, because it comes completely out of the blue. I’m not an avid reader of mysteries, but I do enjoy them, and I like to follow the clues along with the characters, trying to work out how they fit into the big picture at the same time as they do. But here, there is no inkling at all as to who the culprit is until Keira actually sees him – and I felt cheated. There was nothing in the entire story that pointed to this person being the miscreant and if felt as though the author had pulled the name out of a hat or closed her eyes and stuck a pin into the list of possibles.

On a more positive note, Ms. Huber’s descriptions of the landscape and unpredictable weather patterns of the moor are atmospheric and evocative, and I was pleased to see Keira and Gage working together most of the time (in the last book, they were frequently separated). As I’ve said already, Gage’s backstory is engaging and well-told, and the relationship between our two protagonists continues to evolve in a positive way, as Gage is more vulnerable than we – and Keira – have ever seen him and I loved that he was fully prepared to accept her loving support.

Ultimately then, A Brush with Shadows is a bit of a mixed bag. It gets high marks for Gage’s backstory, but a middling grade for a middling mystery, and a cautious recommendation overall. Fans of the series will probably enjoy it for the interplay between the characters and progression in Keira and Gage’s relationship, but those who enjoy a bit more complexity in their historical mysteries might come away a little disappointed.