A Dangerous Deceit (Thief Takers #3) by Alissa Johnson

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Miss Jane Ballenger unexpectedly inherits her brother’s worldly goods—the furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac on which he frittered away their entire family fortune—the only thing to do is catalog the lot of it and sell it off piece by piece. How else will she continue to support Twillins Cottage, the one place she feels safe? Born with a peculiar hearing problem, Jane has long kept to her isolated home in the woods, content with the company of a few close friends, and far removed from those who would brand her an idiot and consign her to life in an asylum. So when the devilishly charming private investigator, Sir Gabriel Arkwright, turns up on her doorstep to claim her new belongings in the name of the crown, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her refuge, her loved-ones, and her well-guarded secret. Even if it means employing a bit of deception.

There are few things in life Sir Gabriel Arkwright enjoys more than a good mystery, especially when it’s a woman. Ever ready to take on an interesting puzzle, he’s determined to learn why the enigmatic Miss Ballenger has hidden herself away from the world. Before he can hope to ferret out the truth, however, Jane unearths national secrets hidden amongst her brother’s possessions. Now Gabriel must decide what’s more important, keeping state secrets out of the hands of a double agent, or protecting the woman who is quickly becoming more to him than just another mystery to solve…

Rating: A-

I am at a loss to understand why Alissa Johnson doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention afforded to the ‘big-name’ authors of historical romance. Every book of hers I’ve read has been superbly written, featuring well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, a well-constructed plot, subtle humour and a beautifully developed romance – yet for some reason, she’s very underrated. This third book in her Thief Takers series is another intelligently crafted character-driven romance, this time featuring a devilishly charming private investigator and a most unusual heroine who are forced to go on the run in order to protect some sensitive government information.

A Dangerous Deceit begins when Miss Jane Ballenger opens her front door on the extremely attractive face and person of Sir Gabriel Arkwright, one of the famous Thief Takers, a trio of former police officers who became instant celebrities when they solved a high-profile case of theft and rescued a duchess some ten or eleven years earlier. The most senior officer – Owen Renderwell – received a viscountcy and his colleagues, Arkwright and Samuel Brass were knighted; and the three of them went into business together as private investigators. Renderwell’s and Sir Samuel’s stories are told in the two previous books (A Talent for Trickery and A Gift for Guile), but all three work perfectly well as standalones – although I’d definitely recommend reading them, as they’re every bit as well-written and enjoyable as this one.

Sir Gabriel explains that he has been engaged by the Foreign Office to come to Jane’s remote cottage in order to retrieve some important information that is hidden among the personal effects belonging to her late brother, Edgar. Edgar spent the past fifteen years living the high life in St. Petersburg, frittering away his sister’s fortune as well as his own, leaving Jane with next to nothing. Now she is faced with the prospect of selling off his possessions so that she can keep a roof over her head and continue to support herself and the Harmons, the couple who have lived with her and looked after her since she was ten years old.

Jane is flustered – her tiny cottage is crammed to the rafters with trunks and boxes and God knows what else – but isn’t about to let someone waltz off with what is likely her only source of funds without some sort of security and insists that Sir Gabriel sign a contract promising the return of the goods once he has found what he is looking for.

Gabriel is not pleased at the delay, knowing that the information he is seeking poses a great danger to Jane and her household.  But he plays along and agrees to Jane’s terms, arranging for his team of handpicked men to make a start on the search as soon as they have finalised their agreement.  When, however, a group of men headed by Foreign Office agent Oscar Kray arrives instead of the team he had requested, Gabriel realises something is wrong, and quickly and quietly gets Jane and the Harmons away from the cottage and into the village.  It soon becomes clear that isn’t going to be far enough away and that Kray will stop at nothing to get hold of the paperwork he believes Gabriel has already found and appropriated.

From then on in, the story becomes a road-trip/adventure yarn whereby Gabriel and Jane have to evade the clutches of Kray and his team and get the sensitive paperwork sent back by Edgar into the right hands.  The couple has to get out of some tight spots and there’s never a dull moment, but there’s time for romance and getting to know each other, too – and it’s here that Ms. Johnson’s gifts for storytelling and characterisation really come into their own.  While Gabriel and Jane fall in love over a very short time – just a few days – they are so well-developed as characters, and their affinity for each other is so strong that it feels as though they – and we – have known each other for far longer, so there is never the sense that things between them are progressing too quickly.

Gabriel is gorgeous – handsome, charming and protective, he’s the perfect hero. Almost. Because he’s also devious and manipulative, and he lies to Jane repeatedly throughout the course of the story.  The earlier books in the series have shown Gabriel to be incredibly good at reading people and thus working out exactly how to approach them to get the desired result.   Jane, however presents more of a challenge than anyone he’s ever met; she’s rude, she doesn’t appear to have a sense of humour, she’s easily distracted, she’s fiercely independent …  and it’s difficult to get a read on her,  which makes Gabriel’s job that bit trickier.  He hates lying to Jane and hates himself for doing it, but ultimately, everything he says and does is because he wants to keep her safe.  He’s also extremely kind, sensitive and understanding, seeing what Jane terms her ‘affliction’ as a set of quirks, for the first time affording her the chance to find out what it might be like to have the one thing she has always believed to be beyond her reach – a normal life.

Ms. Johnson says in her author’s note that she set herself quite the challenge when she decided to write a heroine with CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder).   Of course, in the late Victorian era, when this book is set, the condition was unknown, and people who had it were dismissed as being, at best, hard of hearing, or at worst, imbecilic, deviant or even insane.  Jane is none of those things of course – but the treatment she received at the hands of her family, and mistakes she has made as a result of misunderstandings have made her very wary of mixing with people and fearful of being mocked and shunned.  One website I visited in an attempt to find out more said that people with this condition “can’t process what they hear in the same way other people do because their ears and brain don’t fully coordinate. Something interferes with the way the brain recognizes and interprets sounds, especially speech.” – and the author does an absolutely terrific job of showing how this affects Jane, right from the opening lines:

“Hit a miss dress a tome?”

Jane Ballenger carefully considered these six words and the gentleman on her doorstep who had just delivered them.

He didn’t look like a madman.

“Is she at home?  She should be expecting me.”

At home… A tome

Miss dress.  Mistress

Mistress at home.

Is your mistress at home?

The condition is not limited to these sorts of mix-ups; sometimes, for example, it affects Jane’s ability to remember information, or to pick out one person’s words from a noisy background. Ms. Johnson portrays the disorder subtly and sensitively, showing clearly that Jane is so much more than her ‘affliction’; that she’s an intelligent, insightful and compassionate human being with some ‘quirks’ (Gabriel’s term) that don’t define her and shouldn’t be allowed to limit her.

Gabriel’s unconditional acceptance of Jane is what turns him into the best type of romantic hero.  His own backstory and the intrinsic self-loathing that accompanies his lies and manipulations add depth and colour to his personality, but his perceptiveness and understanding when it comes to Jane and his willingness to compromise for her sake are what make him that little bit special and elevate him from your run-of-the-mill dashing hero into one who is admirable and entirely loveable.

A Dangerous Deceit is a book to be savoured, even though I was unable to resist devouring it in a couple of sittings!  The romance is sweet and tender – but not without its heated moments – and the adventure plot is solidly developed and skilfully incorporated into the romantic storyline without overshadowing it. Characters from the earlier books make cameo appearances, and I especially appreciated another glimpse of the strong and highly entertaining friendship that exists between Gabriel, Samuel and Renderwell.  Fans of character-driven historical romance shouldn’t miss it, and I really hope to read more from Ms. Johnson in the not too distant future.

A Gift for Guile (Thief Takers #2) by Alissa Johnson

a gift for guile

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Once a famous officer of Scotland Yard and now a renowned private detective, Sir Samuel Brass has better things to do than shadow a reckless hellion in her misguided quest for atonement. But when the daughter of a notorious criminal—and a former thief herself—returns to London to right an old wrong, Samuel is drawn back into the dangerously exciting world of Esther Walker-Bales.

Beautiful and conniving, maddening and brilliant, Esther is everything he shouldn’t want. She’s a liar. She’s a con. She’s a thief. And God help him, but he’d do anything to keep her safe.

Esther knows she’s put herself in terrible danger, but nothing will stop her from making amends that are long past due—not her family’s enemies, not old fears, and certainly not the domineering, interfering and undeniably handsome Sir Samuel Brass. Yet whenever he’s near, Samuel makes her long for a life that can never be hers…and wish she were worthy of being saved.

Rating:B+

A Gift for Guile is the second book in Alissa Johnson’s Thief Takers series set in Victorian England. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read book one (A Talent for Trickery), as there is plenty here to flesh out the backstories of the central characters, but I think it offers some useful insight into the heroine’s past and character, and nicely sets up the relationship between the two protagonists – Esther Walker-Bales and Sir Samuel Brass – as one of mutual antagonism albeit with a strong undercurrent of attraction to which neither would admit over their dead bodies.

Esther is the younger daughter of the late William Walker a master thief and con-man who, in the years before his death had turned to helping the police to solve crimes, applying his particular talent for deciphering the codes used by London’s criminal gangs. His eldest daughter, Lottie, was relieved that her father was at last on the straight and narrow, while Esther was fully aware that he was continuing his criminal activities in secret as she usually aided and abetted his crimes.

In the previous book, we learned that the Walker family has been living quietly in the country under an assumed name because there are still enemies of Will’s out there with scores to settle. So it’s not a particularly good idea for any of them to return to their old stamping ground of London – which is why Sir Samuel Brass, one of the famous trio of “Thief Takers” (the other two being Owen, Viscount Renderwell and Sir Gabriel Arkwright) is so annoyed when he discovers that Esther has done just that; travelled to London and arranged a meeting at Paddington station with an unknown man who has promised to give her some important information about her past.

Samuel tells himself that his concern for Esther is simply the result of his being asked to keep an eye on her while her sister and Renderwell are on their honeymoon in Scotland. It’s obvious to the reader that there is more to it than that, even though Samuel and Esther are convinced of the other’s dislike and continue to treat each other with suspicion. Granted, in Samuel’s case, the suspicion is, perhaps, deserved – he knows Esther is a liar and a thief – yet every so often, he catches a glimpse of the real Esther, a remarkable woman with a great capacity for kindness and generosity, and is frustrated by the way she so often retreats to the Walker customs of trickery and guile.

Knowing that Samuel is nothing if not tenacious, Esther realises that she can use his presence to her advantage. His skills as an investigator are considerable and the fact that he is rather well-known means that he can open doors that may be closed to her. He is also one of the very few people in her life she knows she can trust (as far as she trusts anybody) and agreeing to let him help her – which she knows he will insist upon – is going to make her life a lot easier and, she has to admit, make her feel a lot safer.

While there is a mystery to be solved and danger lurks around almost every corner for Esther, this is very much a character-driven story in which the romance evolves naturally as the principals learn more about each other and gradually acknowledge the attraction that has been bubbling between them for quite some time. There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them as well as real depth to their emotional connection.

Esther is tough, clever and resourceful, handy with a blade, trained by her father to be a liar and a master thief. Yet deep down, she admits that her willingness to work with Will was born of her desire to have him notice her and to gain his affection, and can’t help feeling ashamed for it. Even though he knew she was not his child, Will accepted her and brought her up as his own, but Esther always felt herself to be lacking in some way and has spent most of her life believing she needed to be someone other than herself in order to gain acceptance and approval. Her attraction to Samuel, a decent, honest man, who is sworn to uphold the law unnerves her, partly because she has never felt anything like it before, but mostly because he knows her well enough to know that she is so much less than he deserves.

Samuel is a big, grumpy (adorable) bear of a man who finds it safer to say as little as possible for fear of saying the wrong thing. Persistent, keenly intelligent and deeply honourable, he is more than able to hold his own with Esther, recognising her need to take an active part in the search for the truth of her past even as he is trying to reconcile that with his need to keep her safe. Given Esther’s determination to make her own choices and her own mistakes, that isn’t always easy – and with both of them being strong-willed and stubborn people, they clash often and sometimes unpleasantly. Yet there’s always the sense that they argue because they care, and the author makes it easy to understand and sympathise with both their perspectives.

This could so easily have turned into one of those books where the overprotective hero and the feisty heroine go at each other hammer and tongs, she forever getting herself into trouble, and he forever berating her about it – but fortunately, it doesn’t go there. Yes, Samuel is protective and yes Esther is independent and spirited, but – and this is so refreshing – they argue and they talk through their differences and they *gasp* learn to compromise. Esther is never going to be one to sit back and let others fight her battles for her, and Samuel is never going to be happy about that – but there’s a real sense here that these are two people whose actions and words are true to who they are inside. They end the book as essentially the same people they started as, but they’ve both learned and experienced personal growth through their association with and love for each other.

There is something extremely engaging about Ms. Johnson’s writing style, which is intelligent, secure and evocative without being overly wordy. The characterisation is excellent all round, and the descriptions of the seedier parts of London – Bethnal Green, Spitalfields, and the East End Rookeries – are well done, and put the reader quite firmly in those dank, smelly streets. My one criticism – and the reason I’ve not rated the book more highly – is that Esther’s conviction that Samuel can’t want “the real her” because “that woman” is such a horrible person – goes on for too long. But even taking that into account, A Gift for Guile is a terrific read; well-written, insightful and witty with an appealing central couple whose differences are complementary rather than divisive. More, please, Ms. Johnson!

A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.


(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson

a talent for trickery

Years ago, Owen Renderwell earned acclaim—and a title—for the dashing rescue of a kidnapped duchess. But only a select few knew that Scotland Yard’s most famous detective was working alongside London’s most infamous thief…and his criminally brilliant daughter, Charlotte Walker.

Lottie was like no other woman in Victorian England. She challenged him. She dazzled him. She questioned everything he believed and everything he was, and he has never wanted anyone more. And then he lost her.

Now a private detective on the trail of a murderer, Owen has stormed back into Lottie’s life. She knows that no matter what they may pretend, he will always be a man of the law and she a criminal. Yet whenever he’s near, Owen has a way of making things complicated…and long for a future that can never be theirs.

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: B+

A Talent for Trickery is Alissa Johnson’s first new novel since 2012, and I, for one, have missed her. The books of hers I’ve read have been strongly characterised and intelligently written; she has an engaging, easy-to-read style that is laced with wit and subtle humour and the ability to develop her romances in a manner that never feels rushed or forced – and I’m happy to report that this latest book sees her in fine form.

Owen Renderwell, a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard became the focus of public attention some eight years previously by virtue of the fact that he solved a high-profile case involving a kidnapped duchess and a fortune in diamonds. As a result, Owen was elevated to a viscountcy and his two friends and colleagues received knighthoods; and now the three of them work as private investigators. An inquiry into the recent murder of a brothel owner might not normally have come their way, but for two things: the murderer left a coded letter at the scene of the crime that was clearly intended to pique Owen’s interest; and the victim had been a friend of the notorious criminal Will Walker, the man with whom Owen had secretly worked on a number of cases – including that of the missing duchess and diamonds.

Walker, an all-round blackguard, scoundrel and con-man worked with Owen for some four years before being killed attempting to rescue the Duchess of Strale. In order to protect his family – two daughters and a son – Owen arranged for them to disappear and assume new identities, but now, he has to seek them out for the first time since their father’s death, knowing that he is the last person they are likely to want to see or trust.

“They” being – specifically – Lottie, Walker’s eldest daughter and one-time accomplice. Fiercely loyal to her father, she blames Owen for his death and, more importantly, the fact that her father never received any recognition for his work on the right side of the law. Even though she knows, rationally, that keeping her father’s name out of the limelight was the safest option for her and her siblings, she can’t help feeling that Owen betrayed her and cheated her father out of any credit he may have been due for the fact that he had changed his ways and was at last walking along the straight and narrow.

Throughout the four years of their association, Owen was strongly attracted to Lottie, but never made the slightest move in her direction because he didn’t want to put her in a position where she felt she couldn’t refuse him. His attempts to communicate with her following her father’s death were unceremoniously rebuffed and he had to resign himself to never seeing her again, although in the eight years that followed, he has never been able to completely forget her.

But now he needs Lottie’s help to decipher the encoded letter that was left at the scene of the murder, together with those that were left at a number of high-profile crime-scenes in London. Initially hostile, she can’t refuse if her aid will see the murderer of her old family friend brought to justice, and an uneasy truce is struck between them.

Lottie’s resentment of Owen is deep-seated and she is furious with herself when she is forced to acknowledge that the girlish infatuation she had harboured for him has never died – and worse, that she’s as attracted to him as she ever was. She tries hard to maintain a frosty demeanour, but the more time she spends in his company, the more she remembers about old times while at the same time learning new things about the man he has become. Ms Johnson very wisely doesn’t drag out the misunderstanding between the couple, and even though they can’t completely agree, they have nonetheless come to a better understanding of the past well before the half-way point. Lottie is still keeping one devastating secret, and can’t bear the thought of losing Owen again so soon after their reconciliation. But the sudden realisation that there is a killer on their trail leaves them no time to figure out what happens next, as they are plunged into a desperate fight survival against an unknown adversary.

Anyone who reads science-fiction or suspense novels on a regular basis will know what I mean when I describe the rest of this book as a kind of “base under siege” story, which is something I don’t think I’ve come across in an historical romance before. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically a story in which the protagonists are somehow trapped in a particular location and facing a threat – known or unknown – either from the outside or within. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book; Owen and Lottie still have things to sort out between them, but don’t let that get in the way of their working together to figure out the cipher and then to keep everyone safe; and the way their relationship is transformed throughout the course of the book is incredibly well-done. The balance between suspense and romance is just about right, and the author skilfully slips seamlessly between the two.

Both protagonists are three-dimensional, flawed characters whose interactions are enlivened by humour and a lovely undercurrent of affection and attraction, even during that initial period of hostility and mistrust. They have great chemistry and I loved their flirtatious, tender and sometimes combative interactions. Owen is a gorgeous hero – an honourable man who is nonetheless prepared to make sacrifices for the woman he has loved for so long; a man of action when he has to be, and a man accustomed to command in a way that is attractive rather than arrogant. Lottie is highly intelligent and devoted to her family, but is blinded by the deep love she held for the father who used her for his own ends. The secondary characters of Owen’s colleagues and Lottie’s siblings are well-rounded, with inner lives of their own, and I’m intrigued at the prospect of Esther – whose revelations late on in the story are most unexpected – and Sir Samuel as a future couple in another book in the series.

A Talent for Trickery is the sort of book that leaves one with a smile on one’s face and a feeling of real satisfaction after it’s finished. It’s not flashy or gimmicky; it’s just a very well-told story peopled with characters whose flaws make them easy to identify with and like and I’m happy to recommend it. Welcome back, Ms Johnson – and please don’t make me wait another three years for your next book!

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