The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirsten Potter and Brittany Pressley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Upstate New York, 1982. Viv Delaney wants to move to New York City, and to help pay for it she takes a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York. But something isnʼt right at the motel, something haunting and scary.

Upstate New York, 2017. Carly Kirk has never been able to let go of the story of her aunt Viv, who mysteriously disappeared from the Sun Down before she was born. She decides to move to Fell and visit the motel, where she quickly learns that nothing has changed since 1982. And she soon finds herself ensnared in the same mysteries that claimed her aunt.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

Nobody does the gothic/spooky suspense chiller quite like Simone St. James, and although I’ve missed her last couple of releases, I made a point of picking up The Sun Down Motel, which follows two different timelines as two different women find themselves caught up in the search for the truth about the events which took place in and around a creepy motel in Fell, New York, in the early 1980s.

It’s 1982, and after a fight with her mother, Viviane Delaney – Viv – leaves her Illinois home and heads for New York City, but an uncomfortable hitch-hiking experience sees her ending up in the small upstate town of Fell. Entering the foyer of the motel she’d seen from the road, Viv encounters the owner, who is complaining that her night clerk has just quit – and then makes Viv an offer; she can stay there for free if she’ll cover the overnight shift. With nowhere else to go, Viv agrees – and ends up staying in Fell and working the late shift at the Sun Down for more than just a single night. Being practically alone in such an out of the way place during the night would be enough to spook anyone, but it’s not long before Viv starts to realise that maybe her feelings of unease may be down to something more. Doors upstairs randomly opening and closing, the smell of cigarette smoke in the office for no reason, phone calls with no-one at the other end – and then visions of a young woman and a little boy – all convince Viv that the hotel must be haunted, but just as unnerving are some of the live guests who pass through, from the smarmy travelling salesman who signs the guest register with different names to low-level drug dealers, the couple having an affair and the woman who comes there to drink herself stupid a few times a week.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Who Speaks for the Damned (Sebastian St. Cyr #15) by C.S. Harris

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It’s June 1814, and the royal families of Austria, Russia, and the German states have gathered in London at the Prince Regent’s invitation to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the restoration of monarchical control throughout Europe. But the festive atmosphere is marred one warm summer evening by the brutal murder of a disgraced British nobleman long thought dead.

Eighteen years before, Nicholas Hayes, the third son of the late Earl of Seaford, was accused of killing a beautiful young French émigré and transported to Botany Bay for life. Even before his conviction, Hayes had been disowned by his father. Few in London were surprised when they heard the ne’er-do-well had died in New South Wales in 1799. But those reports were obviously wrong. Recently Hayes returned to London with a mysterious young boy in tow–a child who vanishes shortly after Nicholas’s body is discovered.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is drawn into the investigation by his valet, Jules Calhoun. With Calhoun’s help, Sebastian begins to piece together the shattered life of the late Earl’s ill-fated youngest son. Why did Nicholas risk his life and freedom by returning to England? And why did he bring the now-missing young boy with him? Several nervous Londoners had reason to fear that Nicholas Hayes had returned to kill them. One of them might have decided to kill him first.

Rating: B+

Who Speaks for the Damned is book fifteen in C.S. Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth, Sebastian St. Cyr, and could, at a pinch, be read as a standalone.  While earlier books in the series featured a long-running plotline concerning Sebastian’s his search for the truth about his origins, that doesn’t really feature here, so a new reader could jump right in.  That said, this is a consistently well-written series that has garnered high praise across the board – including several DIK reviews here – and I’d advise any fan of the genre who hasn’t yet read the series to go back to the beginning with What Angels Fear.  I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

It’s the swelteringly stuffy June of 1814 and London society is preoccupied with the visit of dignitaries from Austria, Russia and the German states, who have gathered in the city at the behest of the Prince Regent to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the re-establishment of peace and monarchical rule throughout Europe.  Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife Hero are spending time with their infant son prior to attending an engagement, when they are informed of the death – the murder – of Nicholas Hayes, youngest son of the late Earl of Seaforth.  The murder of an earl’s son in a tea garden in Somer’s Town is unusual enough, but Hayes, who, twenty years earlier had been found guilty of murder and transported to Botany Bay, is believed to have died over a decade before.  Which begs many questions – not least of which is what Hayes was doing back in England when, if discovered, he’d have been arrested and probably hanged.

Sebastian’s valet Jules Calhoun is the one who delivered the news, and Sebastian is a little surprised to discover that he had known the deceased before he was transported – and that he was aware that Hayes had returned to England accompanied by a young, half-Chinese boy named Ji.  Calhoun doesn’t know who Ji is to Hayes, but the boy has disappeared; concerned for his safety, Hero, who is currently researching an article about London’s street musicians, sets about looking for him among that community while Sebastian, with the help of Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, begins to look for whoever was responsible for Hayes’ death.

His enquiries begin to paint a picture of Hayes as a rather wild and unprincipled young man.  Some months before he was convicted of killing the Comtesse de Compans, he abducted a wealthy heiress, presumably with the intent to force her into marriage in order to gain control of her fortune.  Yet that Nicholas Hayes is one completely at odds with the man Calhoun had known, and as Sebastian digs deeper, a rounder, more sympathetic portrait of Nicholas begins to emerge. Sebastian, himself the son of an earl and once accused of a murder he did not commit (What Angels Fear), finds himself identifying strongly with the dead man and becomes more and more convinced  that Nicholas was wrongly convicted.  Could he have returned to England in order to exact revenge on whoever set him up?  And if so, why now?  Most importantly, who had a strong enough motive to want him dead?  Could Ji be Nicholas’ son and therefore a threat to the position of the current Earl?  Could the Comte de Compans – currently in London as part of the retinue of the newly-restored King Louis XVIII – have taken revenge for the murder of his wife? Or perhaps the husband and father of the young woman Hayes is accused of abducting wanted their pound of flesh.

C.S. Harris has – as always – penned a complex, tightly-plotted mystery rich in historical detail and full of intrigue and red-herrings.  Unsurprisingly, there is a lot more to the murder than at first appears, and equally unsurprisingly, the people most closely connected to Hayes are tight-lipped and evasive.  With the help of Hero, Calhoun, surgeon Paul Gibson and his formidable Aunt Henrietta – who knows everyone worth knowing, and has her finger on the pulse of the best gossip, past and present – Sebastian is able to start piecing together a picture of the truth behind Hayes’ conviction for murder and his reasons for returning to England.  It all makes for a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery and, when the truth finally comes to light, reveals an incredibly poignant picture of a life wilfully and carelessly destroyed – a life that could have been Sebastian’s just a few years earlier.

Who Speaks for the Damned is another gripping instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, and one I’m sure St. Cyr will need no urging to pick up as soon as it’s released.

Cross Her Heart (Bree Taggert #1) by Melinda Leigh

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For more than twenty-five years, Philadelphia homicide detective Bree Taggert has tucked away the nightmarish childhood memories of her parents’ murder-suicide… Until her younger sister, Erin, is killed in a crime that echoes that tragic night: innocent witnesses and a stormy marriage that ended in gunfire. There’s just one chilling difference. Erin’s husband, Justin, has vanished.

Bree knows how explosive the line between love and hate can be, yet the evidence against her troubled brother-in-law isn’t adding up. Teaming up with Justin’s old friend, former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler Matt Flynn, Bree vows to uncover the secrets of her sister’s life and death, as she promised Erin’s children. But as her investigation unfolds, the danger hits close to home. Once again, Bree’s family is caught in a death grip. And this time, it could be fatal for her.

Rating: B+

Bestselling author Melinda Leigh introduces readers to Detective Bree Taggert in Cross Her Heart, the first book in her new series of romantic suspense novels.  It’s an excellent start, a solid, intriguing and well-paced mystery that introduces and starts fleshing out the central characters and the relationships between them at the same time as it presents a mystery that is very personal for Bree, whose tragic past is brought abruptly back to her in the worst possible way.

The book opens on a harrowing scene taking place at eight-year-old Bree’s home in Grey’s Hollow in upstate New York.  She is desperate to protect her younger siblings – Erin and baby Adam – from their violent, abusive father, as he rages at and beats their mother. Bree has managed to call the police and to keep herself and her brother and sister safe, although when the police arrive, it’s too late for their mother – and their father then turns the gun he used to shoot her on himself.

While Adam and Erin were taken in and brought up by their grandmother, Bree, who was something of a handful, was brought up by a stern cousin in Philadelphia. Looking back, Bree can see that their childhood separation has had a negative effect on their adult relationship; they’re not close, and although Erin continues to live in Grey’s Hollow, Bree has rarely been able to get past her issues to visit there, so Erin and her two kids visit Philly once a year instead.  When we meet Bree again, she- now a homicide detective with the Philadelphia PD – and her soon-to-retire partner, Dana Romano,  have just chased down a suspect when Bree picks up a panicked message from Erin saying she’s in trouble, but when she calls back, only gets voicemail.  Worried because Erin is the head down, go to work, raise her kids sort who’s never in trouble, and still unable to contact her, Bree heads to Grey ‘s Hollow – and her fears for Erin only ratchet up when she arrives at her sister’s house to see two sheriff’s department vehicles parked outside.  Something is very, very wrong.

Erin has been killed, and the chief deputy explains that their main suspect is her estranged husband, Justin, who is currently missing.  Erin’s body was found by Justin’s friend, Matt Flynn, a former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler, who was at the house to collect Justin to take him to his Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  Drugs were the cause of Justin and Erin’s split; he became addicted to pain meds following a car accident, and she didn’t want him around her kids while he was using.  But they were still seeing each other and intended to work things out, and Justin has been trying, with Matt’s help and support, to get clean.

Matt left the sheriff’s department three years earlier after he was shot in his right hand and, due to nerve damage, is no longer able to fire a weapon.  Matt is sure Justin isn’t responsible for Erin’s death and is concerned for his safety;  he’s also not completely confident that the sheriff’s department, which is short on personnel following  the dismissal of the former sheriff and other officers for corruption, is going to pursue the investigation properly – or that the corruption has been completely eradicated.

Chief Deputy Todd Harvey knows that Bree and Matt aren’t going to sit quietly by while his department investigates, so he makes a deal with them; he won’t try to stop them, but wants to be kept informed of what they find out and will share information with them in return.

As I’d expect from Melinda Leigh, the mystery is well-put together, with plenty of twists and turns and gradually building tension and suspense as Bree and Matt work together to find Justin and identify Erin’s killer.  Alongside the mystery we get the gradual unveiling of Bree’s character, a smart, competent, resilient yet flawed individual who is suddenly faced with a shedload of new responsibilities she’d never thought to have, two grieving children she doesn’t know all that well and her own grief and guilt at not keeping her sister safe as she’d vowed to do so many years ago.  I enjoyed the focus on the family as Bree slowly absorbs the fact that her life is never going to be the same;  Morgan Dane, in the author’s previous series, had a strong family unit which rounded her out and grounded her as a character, and I was pleased there’s to be something similar happening here.

I liked Matt, who is being set up as Bree’s future love interest.  He’s a good guy; dependable and supportive, he clearly cares a lot for Justin, and comes to care for and respect Bree and her abilities as an investigator.  There’s the merest frisson of attraction between them at this stage, but fingers crossed that will develop as the series progresses. Dana is a great addition to the family unit; Bree’s closest friend and work-partner, she’s about to retire from the force and goes to Grey’s Hollow to deliver Bree’s cat Vader (!) and to help out while Bree decides what she’s going to do next.

Cross Her Heart is an entertaining story featuring attractive and engaging leads and a supporting cast I look forward to getting to know in future books.  I enjoyed the balance between plot-  and character- driven elements in the story, and my one real complaint is that the identity of the villain came as something of a surprise, but not in a good way.  This character was present in one scene (apart from the few short chapters told anonymously from his PoV) and was mentioned only a few times, so when he was revealed to be the killer it didn’t feel organic or as though the clues had really been leading to that point.

In spite of that, however, I enjoyed the book and would certainly recommend it to fans of the author or to anyone looking to try her work for the first time.

Murder at Pirate’s Cove (Secrets & Scrabble #1) by Josh Lanyon

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Ellery Page, aspiring screenwriter, Scrabble champion and guy-with-worst-luck-in-the-world-when-it-comes-to-dating, is ready to make a change. So when he learns he’s inherited both a failing bookstore and a falling-down mansion in the quaint seaside village of Pirate’s Cove on Buck Island, Rhode Island, it’s full steam ahead!

Sure enough, the village is charming, its residents amusingly eccentric, and widowed police chief Jack Carson is decidedly yummy (though probably as straight as he is stern). However, the bookstore is failing, the mansion is falling down, and there’s that little drawback of finding rival bookseller–and head of the unwelcoming-committee–Trevor Maples dead during the annual Buccaneer Days celebration.

Still, it could be worse. And once Police Chief Carson learns Trevor was killed with the cutlass hanging over the door of Ellery’s bookstore, it is.

Rating: B

Murder at Pirate’s Cove is the first book in a new series of cozy mysteries by Josh Lanyon – a kind of Adrien English meets Jessica Fletcher if you will! All the ingredients of the genre are there – a small village community, eccentric characters, dastardly doings and an intrepid hero; in this case one who ends up at the wrong end of a murder investigation!

Screenwriter Ellery Page left New York and his cheating boyfriend for the small Rhode Island resort town of Pirate’s Cove when he inherited a bequest from his great-great-great aunt Eudora. That bequest consisted of the town’s mystery bookshop, Crow’s Nest, and a rambling (and ramshackle) late-Victorian era house just outside town, and Ellery, feeling the need to make a change, has thrown himself into running the shop and renovating the house. He likes Pirate’s Cove, although he’s still something of an outsider, and is determined to make a go of things there… although three months in, he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be able to afford to stay if business doesn’t start to pick up soon.

Walking back to the shop from the pub late one evening, Ellery is surprised to see the lights are on – and even more surprised to find a dead body – dressed in a pirate costume – lying on the floor. Trevor Maples – a local property developer who was pressuring Ellery to sell Crow’s Nest – was a nasty piece of work, and the fact that he and Ellery were overheard in an altercation on the day Maples died means things don’t look too good for our hero. When the chief of police, Jack Carson (a former LAPD Homicide detective) makes it clear that Ellery is currently the number one suspect, Ellery decides that if the police aren’t looking for the real killer, then he’ll have to find something to persuade them to look elsewhere – and maybe even prove his own innocence. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that someone is actively trying to frame Ellery for the murders – but who, and why?

I’m not really the biggest fan of cozy mysteries – I tend to prefer my mysteries a bit grittier – but I do generally enjoy Josh Lanyon’s work and was keen to see what she’d do with the tropes. Like most genres, there are certain rules to be followed – the stories are usually fairly short with lighter plots, they’re set in a small town or village and the sleuth is often a reluctant amateur who gets him or herself into sticky situations because they’re actually investigating and snooping around rather than just interviewing people! – to name but a few. Ms. Lanyon sticks pretty closely to those rules and turns in a charming story that hooked me in, principally, I think, because Ellery is so completely loveable! Sweet, clever, funny and utterly relatable, he’s a delightful character, and his gentle wit had me smiling often:

The pup yawned in his ear and tucked his head more comfortably beneath Ellery’s chin. “Isn’t he adorable?” the mayor said in the polite tone of a cat person.

Or:

“I’d hate to think I’d moved to Cabot Cove by mistake.”

He’s the reader’s route into the community of Pirate’s Cove, with its aptly named shops and fun, colourful characters, but unlike many amateur sleuths, he’s practically clueless about crime shows and mystery novels. He doesn’t let that stop him, however; with someone going all out to frame him – and worse? – he can’t afford to just sit back and wait to be arrested.

The mystery is intriguing and well done, with deft application of red herrings and plenty of clues for the reader to follow, and the author has introduced an intriguing – and sometimes irritating – secondary cast I’m (mostly) looking forward to meeting again. There’s no romance as such in the book, but there’s a definite spark of interest between Ellery and the handsome, widowed police chief Jack Carson and I’m looking forward to watching their relationship develop in future books.

I honestly didn’t expect to find myself enjoying Murder at Pirate’s Cove as much as I did, but it turned out to be fast-paced and fun story – and even a non-fan of cozies like me found plenty to enjoy.

The Princess Plan (Royal Weddings #1) by Julia London

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London’s high society loves nothing more than a scandal. And when the personal secretary of the visiting Prince Sebastian of Alucia is found murdered, it’s all anyone can talk about, including Eliza Tricklebank. Her unapologetic gossip gazette has benefited from an anonymous tip off about the crime, forcing Sebastian to ask for her help in his quest to find his friend’s killer.

With a trade deal on the line and mounting pressure to secure a noble bride, there’s nothing more dangerous than a prince socialising with a commoner. Sebastian finds Eliza’s contrary manner as frustrating as it is seductive, but they’ll have to work together if they’re going to catch the culprit. And soon, as temptation becomes harder to ignore, it’s the prince who’ll have to decide what comes first—his country or his heart.

Rating: D+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Julia London’s books in the past, so I thought I’d give her latest title a try.  The Princess Plan is billed as a mixture of mystery and romance, in which a visiting prince teams up with a lively spinster to solve a murder and falls in love along the way.  It seemed as though it might be an enjoyable romp, but sadly wasn’t.  The mystery wasn’t mysterious, the romantic development was non-existent, it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t a romp.  Unless you define a romp as pages of inane chatter and un-funny attempts at banter that seem to exist only as a way of padding out the page count.

Miss Eliza Tricklebank is twenty-eight years of age, and a spinster who keeps house for her father, a Justice of the Queen’s Bench (who has recently lost his sight) and mends clocks to earn a little something on the side.  Her sister Hollis is a widow who inherited a publishing business from her late husband and now publishes Honeycutt’s Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies, and her best friend Lady Caroline Hawke is a debutante (well, she’s described as such, but if she’s the same age as Hollis or Eliza then she’s quite an elderly debutante!), and together the three of them spend lots of time chattering about nothing in particular while also deciding what to put in the next edition of the Gazette.  Under discussion when the book opens, is the visit to London by a delegation from the small (fictional) country of Alucia, in London in order to negotiate a new trade agreement at the behest of its crown prince, who is rumoured to be in search of a bride.

Caroline – who, we’re told, knows everybody in London – is able to secure invitations to the masked ball held in honour of the visit for herself and her friends, and it’s here that Eliza, quietly getting tipsy on the rum punch, makes the acquaintance of a gentleman she later realises is none other than Crown Prince Sebastian.

You’re shocked, I can tell.

Flirting and silliness ensure until Sebastian has to go to put in an appearance at the meet and greet portion of the evening, after which he finds himself a woman for the night.  This means Sebastian never does go to meet with his secretary and dear friend Matous, who had told him he needed to see him as a matter of urgency.

And who turns up dead the next morning, his throat cut.

Of course the proper authorities are informed, but Sebastian isn’t impressed with the way they seem to be handling things and decides to investigate the matter himself, much to the displeasure of his brother and the rest of his staff.  And when, a day or so later, an accusation is levelled against a member of the delegation – printed in a lady’s gazette – Sebastian is furious and demands to speak with the author of such unsubstantiated rubbish.

Thus do Eliza and Sebastian find themselves investigating the murder, but the mystery – and I use the term very loosely – is so incredibly weak that it’s impossible to invest in, and the identity of the villain(s) is telegraphed early on, so it’s obvious to everyone – except Sebastian it seems, who thus comes across as really dim.  And when the mystery is solved, the reader is not present when the full extent of the plot is revealed and is merely told about it afterwards.

The romantic relationship is equally lacklustre.  There’s no emotional connection between Sebastian and Eliza, no build-up to their first kiss and absolutely no chemistry between them.  The conflict in their romance is, of course, that Sebastian is royalty and Eliza is a commoner and thus ineligible to become his wife; plus he needs to marry a woman with pedigree and connections – and Eliza has neither.  The solution to this dilemma is ridiculously convoluted and, unless corrections have been made to the ARC I read, doesn’t work.  Sebastian’s solution is to find a way to make Eliza’s father a Baron, which will make her a Lady and thus an eligible bride.  Er… no. The daughter of a Baron is not a Lady, she’s still a Miss (a Right Honourable). To be a Lady, Eliza’s father would have had to have been made an Earl at least.  Seriously, this information is available widely on the internet and it took me ten seconds to find it.

Eliza is obviously meant to be one of those ‘breath of fresh air’, quirky heroines who doesn’t abide by the rules.  She points out, for instance, that while other young ladies must be accompanied by a maid when they go out, she goes wherever she likes on her own; she stood in the middle of London without fanfare all the time. Conversely, Sebastian is hemmed in by all sorts of rules and restrictions that accompany his position – he frequently bemoans the fact that he cannot go out alone, that he has very little privacy and so on and so on… so I had to wonder why free-spirited Eliza – who sees first hand just how restricted Sebastian’s life is – would want to subject herself to the same constraints.  And Sebastian is… well, I finished the book less than an hour ago, and I can’t remember much about him at all.

The Princess Plan doesn’t work as a mystery or a romance, and the plot –such as it is – is not substantial enough to fill a full-length novel.  The characters are unmemorable, the pacing is sluggish and quite honestly, I was bored.  As an alternative to The Princess Plan, might I suggest The Watching Paint Dry Plan, or The Watching Grass Grow Plan, either of which might afford a similar level of entertainment.

In the Dark by Loreth Anne White

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A secluded mountain lodge. The perfect getaway. So remote no one will ever find you.

The promise of a luxury vacation at a secluded wilderness spa has brought together eight lucky guests. But nothing is what they were led to believe. As a fierce storm barrels down and all contact with the outside is cut off, the guests fear that it’s not a getaway. It’s a trap.

Each one has a secret. Each one has something to hide. And now, as darkness closes in, they all have something to fear—including one another.

Alerted to the vanished party of strangers, homicide cop Mason Deniaud and search and rescue expert Callie Sutton must brave the brutal elements of the mountains to find them. But even Mason and Callie have no idea how precious time is. Because the clock is ticking, and one by one, the guests of Forest Shadow Lodge are being hunted. For them, surviving becomes part of a diabolical game.

Rating: A

Loreth Anne White is one of my favourite authors of romantic suspense so I’m always ready to jump into a new book by her.  In the Dark is perhaps a little different to her other books; it’s more of an ensemble piece and more suspense than romantic suspense. There IS a romantic angle, but it’s very low key, although the UST thrumming between the two leads is very present and nicely done.  I found it to be a completely compelling read that grabbed me and pulled me into the story right away; as is clear from the synopsis, it’s a kind of riff on or homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but Ms. White takes that original template and works with it to produce something both familiar and different at the same time.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Penny for Your Secrets (Verity Kent #3) by Anna Lee Huber

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The Great War may be over, but for many, there are still obstacles on the home front. Reconciling with her estranged husband makes Verity sympathetic to her friend Ada’s marital difficulties. Bourgeois-bred Ada, recently married to the Marquess of Rockham, is overwhelmed trying to navigate the ways of the aristocracy. And when Lord Rockham is discovered shot through the heart with a bullet from Ada’s revolver, Verity fears her friend has made a fatal blunder.

While striving to prove Ada’s innocence, Verity is called upon for another favor. The sister of a former Secret Service colleague has been killed in what authorities believe was a home invasion gone wrong. The victim’s war work—censoring letters sent by soldiers from the front—exposed her to sensitive, disturbing material. Verity begins to suspect these two unlikely cases may be linked. But as the connections deepen, the consequences—not just for Verity, but for Britain—grow more menacing than she could have imagined.

Rating: B

Note: This title is part of an ongoing series featuring the same characters, so there will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

This third book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of mysteries featuring the intrepid Verity Kent sees our eponymous heroine and her recently returned husband Sidney investigating not one but two murders.  Penny for Your Secrets takes place just a few months following the events of book two, Treacherous is the Night, and although Verity and Sidney are on more of an even keel now than they were in that book, it’s clear that things between them are still delicately balanced . Neither of them is the same person who got married in 1914 after a whirlwind courtship, and the murder mystery storyline is underscored by the continuing exploration of Verity and Sidney’s marriage as they relearn each other and get to know they people they have become.  But their progress is impeded somewhat by the fact that both of them are still struggling to adapt to the world post-war as individuals;  Sidney with survivor’s guilt and PTSD while he tries to find his place in the world he’s come back to; Verity because she’s without a sense of purpose for the first time in years and because she’s still keeping secrets about the missions she undertook for the Secret Service.

The book opens with Verity and Sidney attending a dinner party hosted by the Marquess and Marchioness of Rockham, at which it is quickly obvious that all is not well between the couple.  Ada (the marchioness) – a friend of Verity’s – is Rockham’s second wife and was previously his mistress; they were in love when they married, but now things have soured. Rockham is rumoured to have another mistress and Ada makes no secret of her affair with Lord Ardmore, whom Verity believes holds some sort of hush-hush position within Naval Intelligence and whom Sidney pronounces “a bounder.”

After an uncomfortable dinner – at which Ada makes a very distasteful joke about shooting her husband – Verity and Sidney excuse themselves as soon as it’s polite to do so and make their way home, only to be woken in the early hours of the morning by a telephone call from an almost hysterical Ada, who tells them that Rockham is dead from a shot to the temple. The police are already on the scene and are clearly looking at Ada as their prime suspect, and while Verity believes her friend to have been guilty of poor judgment in her behaviour of late, she can’t believe her to be capable of murder, so she agrees to Ada’s request for help proving her innocence.

Just a day or so later, Verity is surprised by a visit from Irene Shaw, a former MI5 employee whom she met during the war.  Irene is desperate to find out more about the death of her half-sister Esther, who was killed during what seemed to be a burglary-gone-wrong a couple of weeks earlier.  But despite the fact that Esther’s room had been tossed, nothing was taken, which makes Irene suspect that perhaps the killer had an ulterior motive related to Esther’s wartime job in the censorship department of the Royal Mail.

Frustrated at the slow progress she and Sidney are making with their enquiries into Ada’s situation – some of that due to Ada herself, who, Verity senses, is not being entirely truthful – Verity agrees to look into Esther’s death, much to Ada’s annoyance; she thinks Verity should be focusing on her and not diverting her attention elsewhere.

As Verity and Sidney investigate the two murders, they start to realise that the crimes may be connected – they just have to figure out how.  Their investigation draws the attention of Lord Ardmore, who is very clearly a man to be reckoned with, and it sees them travelling back to France, and then to the Isle of Wight and the estate of Max, the Earl of Ryde, Sidney’s former commanding officer and the man to whom Verity had experienced a strong attraction when she’d still believed herself to be a widow.  Anna Lee Huber pulls her seemingly disparate plot threads together with great skill as Verity, Sidney – and eventually Max – uncover a complicated web of deceit and betrayal.

One of the things the author does very well in this series is to shine a light on the lives of the young people who survived the First World War, showing how their world has changed – and how, in some ways it has not – and how difficult it is for the young women who were drafted into taking on men’s roles and jobs during the war to go back to the way things were.  Verity is one of those women reluctant to relinquish the greater freedom and autonomy she gained, but is also uncertain about where she goes from here.  In the previous book, much of the time spent on the relationship between her and Sidney was to do with her wondering how much she should tell him about her work with the Secret Service and how much it would affect his opinion of her; in this one, there are still things she’s not telling him, but the focus shifts more to Sidney, who is obviously struggling with survivor’s guilt but refuses to talk to Verity about it and repeatedly shuts her out.  The author handles this aspect of their relationship very well; Verity’s frustration and fears for her husband are palpable, but one downside to this is that I still haven’t got much of a handle on Sidney’s personality.  He’s a decent man, no question, but he’s defined mostly in terms of anger and guilt, and because the stories are narrated entirely in Verity’s PoV, we’re not getting to know him in any real detail.

I also confess that I found the mystery in this book a bit harder to get into than previous ones, and didn’t really become fully engaged with it until well into the second half when things were starting to coalesce.  I’m not completely sure why that was; the writing is strong, the research is meticulous and while I wasn’t as invested in Ada’s plotline as I was in Esther’s, the story is very well put together – but I didn’t warm to either Verity or Sidney in this book; they were both a little too distanced and I felt there was a fair bit of repetition in terms of the issues that are still lying between them.

With that said, Penny for Your Secrets is a solidly good read and fans of historical mysteries should definitely give the Verity Kent series a try.  The books can work as standalones but I think readers will be best served by starting at the beginning with This Side of Murder.