And Then He Kissed Her (Girl Bachelors #1) by Laura Lee Guhrke (audiobook) – Narrated by Zara Hampton-Brown

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Supremely sensible Emmaline Dove wishes to share her etiquette expertise with London’s readers, and as secretary to Viscount Marlowe, Emma knows she’s in the perfect position to make her dream come true. Marlowe might be a rake with a preference for can-can dancers and an aversion to matrimony, but he is also the city’s leading publisher, and Emma is convinced he’s her best chance to see her work in print…until she discovers the lying scoundrel has been rejecting her manuscripts without ever reading a single page!

As a publisher, Harry finds reading etiquette books akin to slow, painful torture. Besides, he can’t believe his proper secretary has the passion to write anything worth reading. Then she has the nerve to call him a liar, and even resigns without notice, leaving his business in an uproar and his honor in question. Harry decides it’s time to teach Miss Dove a few things that aren’t proper. But when he kisses her, he discovers that his former secretary has more passion and fire than he’d ever imagined, for one luscious taste of her lips only leaves him hungry for more.

Rating: Narration- B; Content – B

And Then He Kissed Her, book one in Laura Lee Guhrke’s Girl Bachelors series, is one of those books that’s often cited as a favourite by historical romance fans. Originally published in 2007, this is the first time it’s been available in audio, and it’s good to see some old favourites finally making it into the format.

Set in the late Victorian era, And Then he Kissed Her tells the story of the romance between Harry, Viscount Marlowe – who, although an aristocrat, works for a living and owns a successful publishing house – and Miss Emmaline Dove (Emma), who has been his secretary for five years but is certainly not desperately in love with him and, knowing him to be a rake of the first order, is glad not to be so. When the book opens, Emma is being forced to listen to a ‘woe is me’ speech from Marlowe’s latest mistress – to whom he has just given her congé – and has no patience with any of it, relieved (sort of) that she’s not at all the sort of woman who would attract the attention of a such a man. Aged thirty, Emma has kind of accepted she’s likely to remain a confirmed spinster, and in any case, her ambitions lie in a different direction. She hopes one day to become a published author, and has in fact written a number of books on etiquette for young women; she has not so far been able to persuade Marlowe to publish any of them, but continues to write, undaunted.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Lilian and the Irreststible Duke (Secrets of a Victorian Household #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reunion in Rome…

Sparks an affair to remember!

Part of Secrets of a Victorian Household. Responsible widow Lilian Fairclough is persuaded to travel to Rome for a hard-earned break and to let down her hair! She’s surprised to be reunited with passionate, cynical Italian duke, Pietro Venturi. He reawakens her sensual side and intrigues her with glimpses of pain beneath his rakish surface. Enticed into a secret and temporary affair – what will happen once she returns home?

Rating: B

Virginia Heath’s Lilian and the Irresistible Duke is the final book in the multi-author Secrets of a Victorian Household series – a fact I didn’t realise until I read the author’s notes after I’d finished, so I can honestly say that it works perfectly well as a standalone!  I’m a big fan of the author’s work, so I don’t need much – if any – persuading to read one of her books, but the fact that this one is about a more mature couple (the hero is forty-eight, the heroine forty-five) was a definite draw.  That said, while there were things about the book I really liked, it won’t be joining other titles by this author on my keeper shelf.  I found the first half a bit repetitive and I very much disliked the ‘black moment’ in the second half.  I know there had to be one, but it didn’t work for me.

The eponymous Lilian, a mother of three (hero and heroines of the other books in the series) lost her husband Henry to illness around a decade earlier.  She loved him very much and had a fulfilling – if not always easy – life as wife, mother and helpmeet, assisting him with the running of the charitable foundation he set up to help those less fortunate. Working at Henry’s side and bringing up their children was a full-time occupation and one Lilian found personally fulfilling; but now her children are grown and married, she’s suffering from ‘empty nest syndrome’ and isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life.  She’s begun to realise that, in working so hard for the Foundation, she’d allowed Henry’s passion to overtake hers; that she’d lost sight of her own interests, hopes and dreams.  So now that her children are all settled, she allows herself to be persuaded to take a holiday in the one place in the world she’s always longed to visit – Rome.

Lilian and her cousin Alexandra, who has accompanied her on the trip, are to stay at the home of one of Alexandra’s friends, Carlotta, the Contessa di Bagnoregio, and Lilian is just getting settled in when she almost literally runs into a man she’d never thought to meet again.  Several months before, at a Christmas party, Lilian had met Pietro Venturi, Duca della Torizia, who was visiting London at the time.  Late that night in a darkened carriage, Lilian had allowed herself to be thoroughly kissed by the handsome Italian, his kiss stirring up so many feelings that she’d thought long buried with Henry, and starting to unfurl something long dormant inside her.  Not just desire… a growing sense of self and a spirit of adventure, perhaps?

Pietro is just as surprised to see Lilian, and at first jumps to completely the wrong conclusion about her presence, saying some rather rude and crass things to her.  But he quickly realises his mistake, and takes care to apologise; and during the course of their conversation, they agree to put the kiss they’d shared behind them and to go on as friends.

Even so, both of them are fully aware of the strong mutual attraction thrumming between them.  Still, they try to adhere to their agreement as they start to spend part of each day together, Pietro escorting Lilian to see the city’s many artistic treasures.  He finds himself enjoying her enthusiasm for art and her insight, her refreshing way of seeing the paintings, frescoes and sculptures which are so familiar to him, and it isn’t long before they are unable to deny the desire they feel for one another.  They embark on a passionate affair which, at Lilian’s insistence, will be over and done when she leaves, although of course, both of them soon recognise that whatever is going on between them goes far deeper than the merely physical.  For Pietro, this is a disaster; he doesn’t want to have feelings for Lilian – for anyone – and he tries to convince himself that she’s no more to him than any of his other lovers.

I really liked Lilian. She’s sensible and down-to-earth, but not closed off to new experiences and I loved the way the author shows her growing awareness of herself as an independent person and as a woman, one with needs and desires she’s suppressed for a long time.  I liked Pietro, too – he’s handsome, charming and romantic in a very gentlemanly (and sexy) way – but his backstory is perhaps a bit stereotypical; he married young – his bride chosen for him by his father – and the marriage was obviously unhappy.  It’s clear to Lilian that he’s hiding something painful about it, but he refuses to enlighten her further, saying only that he has no wish to become emotionally involved with anyone.  Ever.  Not wanting another wife, he instead conducts highly discreet affairs with women who know the score; that their relationship is physical only and there is nothing more on offer.  Unfortunately, this fact comes back to bite him squarely on the arse later in the story – and although I can’t say much without spoilers, I will say that Lilian’s reaction to an overheard conversation felt very out of character, given the way the author has established her as a straightforward, pragmatic character who isn’t interested in playing emotional games.  I get that she was hurt and that perhaps her pride was bruised, but it still seemed like a massive over-reaction, and it happened so quickly, it’s a wonder I’m not suffering from whiplash.

In spite of my reservations about certain aspects of the plot – and the fact that the epilogue is over-long (if you’ve read the other books in the series, it might work better for you, but I had no investment in any of the other characters) – there’s a lot to like about Lilian and the Irresistible Duke. It’s a ‘grown up’ romance between two people who have a wealth of life experience under their belts, the sex scenes are well-written – without lengthy mental-lusting, slick thighs or twitching appendages – and I really appreciated Lilian’s re-claiming of her self and the way she comes to realise she has a life of her own to lead.  It might not be my favourite of the author’s books, but is nonetheless head and shoulders above much of the historical romance currently on offer.

 

A Convenient Fiction (Parish Orphans of Devon #3) by Mimi Matthews (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She Needed a Husband…. It’s been three years since Laura Hayes’ father died, leaving her and her invalid brother to subsist on the income from the family’s failing perfume business. But time is swiftly running out. What she needs is a husband, and fast. A noble gentleman who can rescue them all from penury. When a mysterious stranger arrives in the village, he seems a perfect candidate. But Alex Archer is no hero. In fact, he just might be the opposite. He Wanted a Fortune…. Alex has no tolerance for sentiment. He’s returned to England for one reason only: to find a wealthy wife. A country-bred heiress in Surrey seems the perfect target. But somewhere between the village railway station and the manor house his mercenary plan begins to unravel. And it’s all the fault of Laura Hayes – a lady as unsuitable as she is enchanting. From the beaches of Margate to the lavender fields of Provence, a grudging friendship slowly blossoms into something more. But when scandal threatens, can a man who has spent his entire life playing the villain finally become a hero? Or will the lure of easy riches once again outweigh the demands of his heart?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

A Convenient Fiction is book three in Mimi Matthews’ Parish Orphans of Devon series, and the first of the set I’ve listened to (I read the first book, A Matrimonial Advertisement), and I confess I picked it up for review principally because Alex Wyndham is the narrator (the earlier books in the series were narrated by someone I don’t care to listen to). The author has a reputation as someone who pays attention to historical detail and accuracy in her novels, and her characters speak and behave in a way that is very period-appropriate – which isn’t something I can say about a lot of the historical romances published recently. Her writing is smooth and engaging and she has the knack for creating nicely simmering romantic chemistry between her protagonists – but if you’re someone who likes a bit of on-page action between the sheets in your romances, then you won’t find that here, as Ms. Matthews closes the bedroom door very firmly once the characters make it that far!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Gilded Cage (Lilywhite Boys #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles proves – once again – that she’s at the top of her game with Gilded Cage (the sequel to her late-Victorian-jewel-thief-caper Any Old Diamonds), which combines an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s poignant and it’s brilliantly observed, featuring wonderfully written, flawed characters who leap off the page, a villain worthy of all the boos and hisses and a high-stakes plot.

When jewel thief and one half of the Lilywhite Boys, Templeton Lane, encountered enquiry agent Susan Lazarus in Any Old Diamonds, it was clear there was a shared history between them – and that it wasn’t one that either of them remembered with fondness.  In Gilded Cage, readers learn the truth of that history – a story of young love gone badly wrong – after Templeton is accused of a double murder and Susan is the only person he feels he can turn to for help.

Against the advice of his associate Jerry Crozier – whom Templeton believes has lost his nerve since he fell in love – Templeton decides to go alone to a house in Mortlake in order to steal a set of highly valuable opals.  Things are going as planned until he enters the bedroom where the safe is located and discovers the house’s owner lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  When a terrified servant wakes the rest of the house, Templeton gets out (not before grabbing the jewels though!), evading his pursuers by swimming across the Thames (risky in the cold and dark) and then makes his way to the East End shop belonging to their regular fence, Stan, where he finds Jerry waiting for him.  Both are furious with Templeton for being so careless, not just of his personal safety, but of theirs, too, and tell him that he needs to get out of the country fast or face the hangman’s noose.  Angry and hurt at what he sees as a betrayal – although he does grudgingly admit to having cocked up big time – and unable to leave England owing to an increased police presence at the ports, Templeton needs to clear his name, which is how he ends up seeking out Susan Lazarus and hoping she won’t turn him in herself before he’s had a chance to explain.

What follows is part second chance romance part murder mystery in which the two leads are finally able to talk about their shared past while also gaining a new appreciation for and understanding of each other and who they are now.  Susan is a wonderful heroine.  Fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense, perceptive and loyal with just a hint of vulnerability she keeps well hidden, she’s not thrilled about seeing the man who broke her heart seventeen years earlier, but also knows that whatever else he is, he’s not a murderer and agrees to help him prove his innocence by finding the true culprit. And although Templeton comes across as a bit of a git to start with – his temper-tantrum over what he sees as Jerry’s ‘defection’ and new-found happiness causes Templeton to make very poor decisions and behave like a petulant kid – he is gradually revealed to be a decent, thoughtful man, his obvious respect for Susan, his acceptance of her bisexuality, and his being prepared to follow her lead (both in the investigation and in their personal interactions) more than making up for his earlier poor judgment and selfishness.

Their relationship is superbly done, the chemistry sizzles and I loved watching them talk through the issues that lie between them and find their way back to each other.  The dialogue – laced with wit and very astute social observation – sparkles, and the plot very cleverly weaves together the threads of past and present to create an immensely satisfying three-dimensional story that has fun poking fun at and playing around with genre tropes.

As is always the case with this author, the writing is superb, the characters are fully-rounded, flawed individuals, and the whole novel is permeated by a wonderful sense of time and place.  Most impressive of all is Susan, a woman who faces the same challenges and restrictions faced by all women at the time (late 19th century) with regard to personal freedom and independence, but who is nonetheless forging her own path as best she can, and the HEA is both original and perfectly in character as well as being thoroughly satisfying.  My one criticism of the story is that because most of the investigation takes place off-page, the sense of urgency – Templeton stands to hang if found guilty, after all – isn’t quite as strong as it should have been.

Although the book works perfectly well as a standalone, there are some lovely shout-outs to both the Sins of the Cities and the Society of Gentlemen; Templeton Lane is really James Vane, whose Great Uncle was Richard Vane –  the mention of the slender, elderly man who taught Templeton the art of silent footsteps was just lovely! – and we get a little peek into the home life of Susan’s ‘guvnors’, Nathaniel Roy and Justin Lazarus, who is clearly as much of a shifty bastard as he ever was.

Gilded Cage is a fantastic read and one no fan of historical romance should miss.  K.J. Charles is one of the very few writers in the genre who really understands it, and given the current deplorable state of HR in general, a true gem like this is not to be missed.

 

TBR Challenge: Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin #1) by Jordan L. Hawk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reclusive scholar. A private detective. And a book of spells that could destroy the world.

Love is dangerous. Ever since the tragic death of the friend he adored, Percival Endicott Whyborne has ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man. Instead, he spends his days studying dead languages at the museum where he works. So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible.

Griffin left the Pinkertons after the death of his partner. Now in business for himself, he must investigate the murder of a wealthy young man. His only clue: an encrypted book that once belonged to the victim.

As the investigation draws them closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. But when they uncover evidence of a powerful cult determined to rule the world, Whyborne must choose: to remain safely alone, or to risk everything for the man he loves.

Rating: B

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

The Art of Theft (Lady Sherlock #4) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

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…

Rating: A-

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.”