Fair Play (All’s Fair #2) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Fifty years ago, Roland Mills belonged to a violent activist group. Now, someone is willing to kill to prevent him from publishing his memoirs.

When ex-FBI agent Elliot Mills is called out to examine the charred ruins of his childhood home, he quickly identifies the fire for what it is–arson. A knee injury may have forced Elliot out of the Bureau, but it’s not going to stop him from bringing the man who wants his father dead to justice.

Agent Tucker Lance is still working to find the serial killer who’s obsessed with Elliot and can’t bear the thought of his lover putting himself in additional danger. Straightlaced Tucker has never agreed with radical Roland on much–“opposing political viewpoints” is an understatement–but they’re united on this: Elliot needs to leave the case alone. Now.

Tucker would do nearly anything for the man he loves, but he won’t be used to gain Elliot access to the FBI’s resources. When the past comes back to play and everything both men had known to be true is questioned, their fragile relationship is left hanging in the balance.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B

This second book in Josh Lanyon’s All’s Fair trilogy takes place a few months after the apprehension of the serial killer The Sculptor who was revealed to be Andrew Corian, a colleague of Elliot Mills, a history professor at Puget Sound University. An ex-FBI agent, Elliot was drawn into the investigation of the disappearances of a couple of students during the course of which he reunited with his former lover, Special Agent Tucker Lance. The two parted badly after a serious knee injury ended Elliot’s FBI career, but when the investigation in the previous book threw them back together, they were finally able to work things out between them, and when Fair Play opens, they’re an established couple in it for the long haul, although they are still getting used to being a couple and the compromises and adjustments that are necessary to make a relationship work.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Criss Cross (Psycop #2) by Jordan Castillo Price (audiobook) – Narrated by Gomez Pugh

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Criss Cross finds the ghosts surrounding Victor getting awfully pushy. The medications that Victor usually takes to control his abilities are threatening to destroy his liver, and his new meds aren’t any more effective than sugar pills.

Vic is also adjusting to a new PsyCop partner, a mild-mannered guy named Roger with all the personality of white bread. At least he’s willing to spring for the Starbucks.

Jacob’s ex-boyfriend, Crash, is an empathic healer who might be able to help Victor pull his powers into balance, but he seems more interested in getting into Victor’s pants than in providing any actual assistance.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

Criss Cross is a strong second instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s Psycop series which sees our hero, Victor Bayne, temporarily housing his new lover, hot shot “stiff” (i.e, non-psychic) detective Jacob Marks while the latter looks for a new apartment (his own became a crime scene at the end of the previous book). Vic is pretty happy with the way things are going between them – although he still can’t help being surprised that a hot, popular guy like Jacob actually wants to be with a messy, fucked-up individual like himself.

Vic is a level 5 medium – which is the highest rating there is – and he Sees Dead People on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, being continually accosted and yelled at by ghosts isn’t a pleasant experience; Vic and others like him regularly take anti-psyactive drugs so they aren’t driven completely crazy by it, but Vic’s talent is so strong that the normal doses don’t do much for him, so he takes more than he should and spends much of his time doped up on anti-psyactives and sedatives. While on a fishing trip with his former work partner, Vic is unnerved even further to realise that his ability to communicate with the dead has somehow been amplified, and even the large doses of medication he takes routinely aren’t working.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Henchmen of Zenda by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Antony Ferguson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan – and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends – which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

Rating: Narration – C+ : Content – A-

A retelling of Anthony Hope’s 1894 classic adventure story The Prisoner of Zenda from a different point of view, K.J. Charles’ The Henchmen of Zenda introduces us to Jasper Detchard, a disgraced and debauched former army officer who unrepentantly fights and fucks his way around Europe, making his living as soldier of fortune. He’s approached by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau (from the small European kingdom of Ruritania) to join his trusted bodyguard – known as “the six” – and take part in the overthrow of Michael’s half-brother, the country’s new king, Rudolf V.

The original novel is narrated by one Rudolf Rassendyll, an English gentleman who bears an uncanny resemblance to King Rudolf, and who is holidaying in Ruritania when he is approached by the king’s closest advisers and asked to impersonate the monarch during his upcoming coronation because he’s falling down drunk and unlikely to be sober in time to attend. When Michael’s men kidnap the king, things get even more complicated; Rassendyll falls in love with the king’s betrothed, the Princess Flavia, and all ends well after Rassendyll rescues the king and then honourably bows out, leaving Flavia to do her duty to king and country. It’s a “Boy’s Own” swashbuckling adventure, a piece of Victorian pulp fiction complete with all the clichés and conventions demanded by the genre; an altruistic, honourable hero, a damsel in distress and a black-hearted villain… or two. K.J. Charles does a superb job of turning these conventions on their heads, inside out and backwards to create a story that immediately takes on a life of its own separate from the source material, and of turning the characters into fully-rounded individuals rather than the rather two-dimensional cyphers they are in Hope’s tale.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

NOTE: NOT AVAILABLE DIGITALLY IN THE US. The book is being published in the US in June 2019 under the title The Poison Thread

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth.

Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted to have the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Rating: B

Laura Purcell first came to my attention as the author of a couple of very fine pieces of historical fiction, and earlier this year, I awarded her fabulous, spooky supernatural/gothic mystery The Silent Companions DIK status at AAR  and gushed about it to everyone who crossed my path!  I’ve been waiting eagerly to read her next novel The Corset, another mystery set in Victorian England, this time, featuring two very different women who are brought together in the gloomy surroundings of a London prison.

Dorothea Truelove is pragmatic, intelligent and privileged.  She is heiress to a considerable sum, but continually resists her father’s attempts to find her an eligible husband, preferring instead to concentrate on her scientific interests and the young, most definitely ineligible policeman with whom she is in love.  Dorothea has become fascinated by phrenology  – a pseudoscience that posited that a person’s character could be determined by the measurements of their skull and that personality, thoughts and emotions were located in certain specific regions of the brain – and is furthering her knowledge by visiting female inmates at Oakwood Gate Prison.  She is keen to meet the latest new arrival, a sixteen-year-old girl called Ruth Butterham who has confessed to the murder of her employer and several other people, and to study the size and shape of her skill, believing her research could help “devise a system to detect, scientifically, without a doubt, all evil propensities in the young” and thereby a way of preventing them from becoming criminals.

Ruth Butterham couldn’t be more different to Dorothea.  A talented seamstress, Ruth’s life has been blighted by tragedy, poverty and horror; when her father commits suicide, she and her sick mother are forced to seek help from Mrs. Metyard, a popular modiste for whom Ruth’s mother often does piece-work.  In desperation, Ruth’s mother more or less sells Ruth to Mrs. Metyard, believing that a roof over her head and regular meals will be better for Ruth than anything she can provide, which is why, aged just twelve, Ruth finds herself subjected to abuse and exploitation alongside four other girls, all of them terribly mistreated, half-starved and regularly beaten.

The story is told from both Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, the latter in the form of the tale she is telling Dorothea and her thoughts and feelings upon it.  Ruth tells how she came to believe that she had the ability to impart her feelings through her needle and into her work, and how she has been able to cause harm to those who harmed her by weaving her hatred and anger into her sewing.  Dorothea is at first fascinated and excited at the prospect of being able to examine the head shape and size of a murderess, but soon becomes annoyed and frustrated; what she is hearing from Ruth’s lips and learning from her skull shape and measurements don’t match up at all, because her centres of morality and memory are too well developed for someone who is clearly telling so many lies.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Dorothea’s narrative is somewhat less engrossing than Ruth’s.  She doesn’t have to worry about where her next meal is coming from, or whether dropping this plate or that candle will result in a vicious beating (which happens in Ruth’s story); her problems are trivial by comparison, as she fumes about the fact that her father is planning to marry a woman she dislikes intensely, and over his attempts to force her into marriage. That said, the parallels the author draws between the women in relation to how little control either has over their lives is relevant and nicely done, showing clearly that gender was a great leveller, still the biggest obstacle to a woman having choices, no matter her social or financial status.  The corset is certainly an interesting metaphor, applied just as well to the garments that restricted women’s movement as to the rigid conventions that restricted their behaviour and opportunities.

As is the case with the other books I’ve read by Laura Purcell, The Corset is beautifully written, and her research has clearly been impeccable.  The descriptions of what Ruth goes through – the poverty, the despair, the cruelty – have a visceral impact and make Ruth an easy figure to sympathise with, but they were also a little too gory at times for my taste, and there were elements of unnecessary repetition that didn’t enhance or further the story.  And here I have a confession to make; the reveal that came around the half-way point was so daft that it actually made me want to snort with laughter rather than hide behind the sofa.

I find I can’t write about The Corset without reference to Ms. Purcell’s previous novel, The Silent Companions, which is one of the best modern gothic novels I’ve read.  Deeply atmospheric and seriously creepy, it worked so well because there was genuine doubt as to what was really going on; was the heroine subject to supernatural forces or mere human evil?  Whatever the answer arrived at by the reader, both options were equally terrifying.  In this novel, however, there is no real horror (unless you count the account of the birth of Ruth’s sister, or the gloopy slime of the decaying fish one of the other girls put into Ruth’s work-basket), or sense of the unexpected. I was never really convinced by Ruth’s belief that she could somehow sew malevolence into the garments she made and embroidered, which always seemed to me to be something latched on to by a girl so traumatised by loss and despair that she would believe anything if it meant she was able to exercise even the smallest amount of control over her circumstances.

The characterisation of both leads is extremely strong, Ruth’s naïve, trusting nature tempered by an incredible resilience and endurance while Dorothea, ostensibly a good young woman with a penchant for doing good works, turns out to be something of  a self-righteous prig.  Ms. Purcell interweaves their narratives skilfully and in such a way as to give the reader time to reflect upon their reliability, and the final chapters and slowly evolving revenge plot are incredibly well done; for my money, the final twenty percent of the novel is easily worth the price of admission alone.  But for all the great things the book has going for it, I wasn’t as drawn into it as I’d hoped to be, which I freely admit may be because I had such high expectations and had hoped for more of what I found in the author’s previous novel.

The Corset nonetheless earns a solid recommendation courtesy of its superb writing, strong characterisation and intriguing storylines.  The novel’s flaws don’t outweigh its strengths by any means, and anyone looking for a gritty, well-written and well-researched gothic mystery could do worse than give it a try.

The Wolf at Bay (Big Bad Wolf #2) by Charlie Adhara

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Going home digs up bad memories, so it’s something Bureau of Special Investigations agent Cooper Dayton tries to avoid. When he’s guilted into a visit, Cooper brings along Oliver Park, his hot new werewolf partner, in the hopes the trip will help clarify their status as a couple…or not.

When Park’s keen shifter nose uncovers a body in the yard and Cooper’s father is the prime suspect, Cooper knows they’re on their own. Familial involvement means no sanctioned investigation. They’ll need to go rogue and solve the mystery quietly or risk seeing Cooper’s dad put behind bars.

The case may be cold, but Park and Cooper’s relationship heats up as they work. And yet if Cooper can’t figure out what’s going on between them outside of the bedroom, he’ll lose someone he… Well, he can’t quite put into words how he feels about Park. He knows one thing for sure: he’s not ready to say goodbye, though with the real killer inching ever closer…he may not have a choice.

Rating: B+

Charlie Adhara’s début novel, The Wolf at the Door, was a hugely entertaining combination of paranormal romance and romantic suspense. Set in a world in which werewolves exist and have recently made themselves known to world governments, readers were introduced to the BSI (Bureau of Special Investigation) which is the division of the FBI specifically tasked with investigating werewolf-related crimes. Special Agent Cooper Dayton was seriously wounded in a werewolf attack around a year before the book opened, and once recovered, was offered the opportunity to join the BSI, where he has been partnered with Oliver Park, a handsome, somewhat enigmatic werewolf and former college professor.  Given the way Cooper was injured, and the way his former partner had drummed the necessity for suspicion into him, it wasn’t surprising he wasn’t pleased at being part of what, according to his ex-partner, was a PR exercise designed to pander to the werewolf population; but as the book progressed, it became clear to Cooper – and to the reader – that not everything he’d been told was the truth, and that Park was charming, intuitive, droll and trustworthy – absolutely nothing like Cooper had expected.

By the end of the book, Cooper and Park have moved beyond the professional and become lovers, their physical intimacy evolving naturally out of the strong working relationship they develop during the story.  By the time The Wolf at Bay opens, they’ve been together for four months, although of course, it’s not something they can be open about if they want to remain as work-partners.  They spend a lot of time together, enjoy each other’s company (and the sex) but Cooper isn’t willing to think beyond that, or about what they’re really doing – things firmly on the long list of things he and Park Don’t Talk About.

Following a shake-down that doesn’t go according to plan, Cooper and Park are on their way back to DC when a call from Cooper’s dad, former Sheriff Ed Dayton, sees them making a detour to Jagger Valley in Maryland in order to attend the engagement party being held for Cooper’s brother Dean – which Cooper had completely forgotten about.  Cooper’s relationship with his father is an uneasy one, and he rarely visits his childhood home; he’s always felt the Sheriff never thought he was good enough, and Cooper has never told his father or his brother how dangerous his job really is and lets them believe he’s a glorified pen-pusher, which gives rise to some disparaging comments and not so subtle ribbing from his dad.  He’s not out to them either, and on top of all that, there’s an uncomfortable tension between him and Park he’s aware is mostly his fault because he’s deliberately holding back from him.  On impulse, Cooper asks Park to go to Jagger Valley with him, hoping that perhaps some time away from the professional arena will allow them to just be a couple and maybe to figure out exactly what they are to each other; and Park, being Park, says he’d be honoured to meet Cooper’s family.

The first part of the book does get a little bogged down in Cooper’s insecurities, his reluctance to admit to himself how he really feels about Park and his inability to actually talk to him about their… whatever is going on between them.  Fears of rejection, of being hurt and thirty years of emotional repression  all conspire to keep holding him back, and while he does want to talk to Park about where they stand, he simultaneously keeps finding ways to put it off.  And when a decades old dead body is found buried in the back garden of the Dayton family home, Cooper grabs the opportunity to put it off yet again with both hands.

Once this discovery is made, the pace picks up, and the revelations concerning the dead man – who lived in the house next door but was believed to have upped and left twenty-five years earlier – come thick and fast and Cooper learns some things about his family history that shock and unnerve him.  Even though he’s not there in any official capacity – and is warned off becoming involved – when his father falls under suspicion, Cooper is even more determined to discover the truth about the man’s death.

The mystery plot is extremely well done, but the thing that has really stuck with me about this book is the astonishing amount of character and relationship development Ms. Adhara packs into it, and how skilfully she juggles her different plotlines.  Through Cooper’s investigations into the murder, readers learn more about his past, his familial relationships and how they have informed his character; and even though he and Park are on shaky ground for part of the book, the discoveries they make about each other only serve to strengthen the bond developing between them.  It’s apparent right away that their relationship is about more than ‘just sex’ for both of them; they hang out together, they watch movies, talk about books and enjoy being together, but Cooper is terribly insecure and fearful that eventually Park will just stop showing up at his place, and those anxieties communicate themselves to his lover and send mixed signals.

As with the previous book, the story is told entirely from Cooper’s point of view, but once again the author does wonderful job of showing the truth of Park’s feelings through his words, actions and expressions.  Cooper might not be able to read the signs properly, but the reader can, and it’s crystal clear that Park is very much in love, but is trying to give Cooper whatever he needs while he figures things out.  Unfortunately, Cooper reads his willingness to give him space as aloofness; but thankfully, he does eventually come to realise that his unwillingness to let himself be vulnerable is what is most likely to drive Park away, and after a particularly steamy sexual encounter decides it’s time to man up and be honest with the man he loves.

The mystery is wrapped up neatly by the end and Cooper and Park have at last admitted how they feel about one another, but a plot-thread left hanging for book three suggests that not everything in the garden of love will continue to be rosy.  Although The Wolf at Bay gets a little bogged down in the first part, it’s still an excellent read and one I’m recommending very strongly.  I’m thoroughly enjoying this series, and can’t wait to read book three next Spring.

Death is Not Enough (Baltimore #6) by Karen Rose

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In his work as a defense attorney in Baltimore, Thorne has always been noble to a fault–specializing in helping young people in trouble just as someone did for him when he was younger. He plays the part of the bachelor well, but he secretly holds a flame for his best friend and business partner, Gwyn Weaver, a woman struggling to overcome her own demons. After four years, he thinks he might finally be ready to confess his feelings, come what may.

But his plans are derailed when he wakes up in bed with a dead woman–her blood on his hands and no recollection of how he got there. Whoever is trying to frame Thorne is about to lead him down the rabbit hole of his past, something he thought he had outran long ago. Thorne must figure out who has been digging into his secrets, how much they know, and how far they will go to bring him down . . .

Rating: C+

As a fan of romantic suspense novels, I should probably hang my head in shame when confessing that I’ve never read a novel by Karen Rose.  But I have to say right off the bat, that I found Death is Not Enough, the sixth book in her Baltimore series, to be something of a slog.  I went into the read knowing that it was part of a series and I was fine with that; as a reviewer, it’s not uncommon to pick up a book mid-series.  Most of the time, authors design such books to work as standalones, and supply enough relevant information to get the newbie up to speed, and Ms. Rose does this – but the trouble is that she gives so much information about what is a pretty large cast of characters and events that I felt overwhelmed and had trouble keeping track of who was who, and who was married and/or related to whom; and in the first few chapters, especially, the potted history that accompanies the introduction of each new character is info-dumpy and completely interrupts the narrative flow.

The story itself is a very good one and had the first three-quarters of the book proceeded at the pace of the last quarter, would have made an exciting and engaging thriller.  Defence attorney Thomas Thorne – an all-round good guy who worked hard to make something of himself after a pretty bad start in life – is discovered naked in his bed with a dead woman next to him.  He has no idea who she is or how either of them got there; she’s not only dead but her body has been practically eviscerated, and Thomas was pumped so full of GHB that he’s lucky he survived.  Everyone who knows Thorne knows there is absolutely no way he’s guilty of murder and that he’s been set up; even law enforcement don’t believe in his guilt – and the story follows him and his close-knit group of friends and colleagues as they start to piece together a trail of evidence that links back to a twenty-year-old crime.  In the course of their investigations, it becomes apparent that while Thorne is the target, whoever is behind the various attacks on his friends, his business and his reputation is not actually out to kill him; instead they are going after everything he holds dear, clearly intending to destroy him by taking away everything he values.

The book starts off at a slow crawl and more or less continues that way until the later stages when we at last break free of the almost constant explanations of every single plot point or detail of the investigation.  The characters have frequent meetings in which everyone sets forth their latest findings  –  even though in many cases, the reader has been present for those conversations or the information has already been relayed.  Every discovery, every action is described in unnecessary detail; even down to something like this:

“Can you give me those files, Sam? I’ll see if I can clean up the video at all. Maybe we can get descriptions on the drive and his sidekick.”

Sam dug in his computer bag and tossed Alec a thumb drive. “They’re all there.”

Alec caught it with one hand. “Thanks.”

That’s just one instance – did we really need to know Sam dug in his computer bag, or that Alec caught the thing with one hand?  And given what happens immediately before this exchange it’s obvious WHY Alec wants the drive.  I’m capable of working out why people are doing things – I don’t need blow-by-blow descriptions all the damn time.  I’m sure that had there been a scene in which pizza was delivered, it would have been accompanied by a complete backstory for the delivery guy and possibly an explanation as to how the pizza was prepared!

As I said at the outset, it’s on me that I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series, and I fully accept that may account for some of the issues I had with this one.  Maybe I’d have had more patience with the ensemble cast (and I’m usually quite well disposed towards ensemble pieces), the constant references to past events that often had very little relevance to the plot of this book, and the snail-crawling-through-molasses pacing of the story.  But being prepared to take part of the blame for the fact that this book didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that the flaws I’ve identified aren’t real.  Too many interruptions, too many characters, too little romance and very little suspense – the book is twice as long as it needed to be to tell this particular story – and as a result there’s little tension, sexual or otherwise.  The secondary cast is great – we should all be so fortunate to have people in our lives who would rally round like this at times of real trouble – but there are too many of them and the frequent tangential detours into What Happened in Book X take time and attention away from the principal storyline.  It wasn’t until the 40% mark on my Kindle that the Scooby Gang finally figured out who was most likely behind the plot against Thorne, and there’s a lot of time devoted to the villain’s PoV, much of which was superfluous.

I like friends-to-lovers romances, and the long-standing unrequited nature of this one was one of the things that most drew me to the book.  A bit of UST goes a long way when done well, but here it’s so drawn out as to have become annoying, and at times, I had to remind myself I was reading about two people in their late thirties instead of a pair of awkward teens.  At the very beginning of the book, Gwyn Weaver discovers that Thorne has been deliberately warning off the guys she’s been planning to date and is understandably pissed off with him.  This turns out to have very fortunate consequences, as it’s her need to confront him about it that leads Gwyn to Thorne’s home on the morning of the set-up; it’s she who finds him and is able to do what’s necessary to both save his life, and document the crime scene.  Given all the crap going down, it’s no wonder that she decides it’s not the best time to confront him about his interference – but she does bring it up some time later and Thorne is (finally) honest with her and admits that yes, it was stupid, but that he did it because he didn’t want her seeing anyone else.  Leaving aside the caveman mentality, he’s thirty-six years old. Not twelve.  Even so, Gwyn can’t deny that she’s attracted to Thorne and has been for some time, but her traumatic experience with a murderous stalker four years earlier has made her cautious, so it’s quite understandable that she doesn’t just fall into Thorne’s arms and bed.  Instead, we’re subjected to pages of mental hand-wringing and internal monologuing about how he\she shouldn’t be thinking about the other ‘that way’ or how Gwyn is scared to take the next step for fear of ruining their friendship, or how Thorne doesn’t want to do anything out of turn… I’m not trying to downplay what happened to Gwyn – which was truly awful – just the way it’s used as a delaying device in a way that is tedious and not at all romantic or sexy.  In fact, after a while I wanted them to bang their heads together rather than… er… any other parts of their bodies.

I am sure there will be fans of Ms. Rose’s books reading this uttering howls of protest, and to you I say, “Good luck to you – I hope you enjoy the book!”. You don’t need a recommendation from me or anyone to pick up a book by a favourite author.  And to those who aren’t long-time fans, I’ll say that I can’t recommend Death is Not Enough for all the reasons I’ve outlined, and that maybe if you’re interested in trying this author, you might consider checking out some of our reviews and then going back to try some of her earlier novels.

 

The Hollow of Fear (Lady Sherlock #3) by Sherry Thomas


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Rating: A

It seems that my reaction, whenever I finish one of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books, is forever destined to be one of complete awe as I sit stunned, with my brain trying to catch up while I’m also trying to scrape my jaw up off the floor. I’m not sure I’m capable of forming whole sentences just yet, because DAY-UM, but the woman has a devious mind!

The Hollow of Fear is the third in the series, and it opens exactly where book two – A Conspiracy in Belgravia – left off. So be aware that what I’m going to say next is a spoiler for that book, and that there are most likely to be spoilers for the other books in this review. Readers should also know that while there is information dotted throughout that supplies some of the backstory, I’d strongly recommend reading all the books in order so as to gain a greater understanding of all the relevant events.

The plotline of Conspiracy concerned the search for one Myron Finch, who is Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother. In a surprise twist tight at the end of the book, we learned that Finch has actually been hiding in plain sight all this time, working as the Holmes family’s coachman, and this conversation continues at the beginning of Hollow. Finch explains that he’s in hiding from Moriarty because he – Finch – has something belonging to his former master and knows that death will be his punishment should Moriarty ever find him. After a daring escape – made with the aid of Stephen Marbleton (whose mother was married to Moriarty at one time) – Charlotte is making her way back to the house she shares with Mrs. Watson when a carriage draws up beside her, the door opens – and the gentleman inside gives his name as Moriarty.

Skipping ahead a few months, we find Charlotte and Mrs. Watson comfortably settled in a cottage situated not very far from Stern Hollow, the country estate of Charlotte’s closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton.  The two have known each other since they were in their teens and it’s been very clear from the moment readers were introduced to Lord Ingram – Ash – that there’s more lying between him and Charlotte than friendship.  But he is married (albeit very unhappily) and Charlotte is… an unusual woman, to say the least, one who does not “understand the full spectrum of human emotions”, or rather, whose own reactions to those emotions are not always those that are desired or easily understood by others.  Lord Ingram and Charlotte know and understand each other on a deep, instinctual level, and their relationship is both beautiful and frustrating; the complementary way their minds work is wonderful to see – when it comes to logic and investigation, their thoughts mesh seamlessly – but their emotional connection is far more complex and Lord Ingram, fully aware of the nature of his feelings for Charlotte, is just as fully aware that they may never be returned as he would wish.

However, the reason Charlotte and Mrs. Watson are sojourning near Stern Hollow is not Lord Ingram, but Charlotte’s sister, Olivia, who is staying close by, at a house party being hosted by their father’s cousin, Mrs. Newell.  Given that Charlotte was disowned after her disgrace (A Study in Scarlet Women), she cannot openly contact Livia and hopes she will be able to see her while she is in the vicinity.  It looks as though fate is against them when Mrs. Newell’s home is flooded and it seems the party must be broken up, but Lord Ingram steps in to offer the hospitality of Stern Hollow to the displaced guests.  Livia’s enjoyment of her new surroundings is slightly marred by the presence of  two of society’s pre-eminent gossips, who have alleged that Charlotte and Lord Ingram are lovers and are trying to prove it.  Lady Ingram’s continued absence – the story is that she has gone abroad for the sake of her health; the truth is that she was divulging state secrets to Moriarty, and was allowed to leave the country before she could be arrested – produces even more juicy speculation on the part of the two ladies, who are now putting forth the rumours that Lord Ingram may have done away with the wife from whom he was known to be estranged in order to marry Charlotte.  When, a day or so later, Lady Ingram’s dead body is discovered in the ice house, Livia knows it will look as though those rumours are true – and that there’s only one person who will be able to prove Lord Ingram’s innocence.

Gah!  There’s so much more I could say about this book, but I don’t want to give too much away.  The bulk of the story is devoted to the investigation into Lady Ingram’s death – but it’s far more complicated than that, and we’re gripped by the various twists, turns and discoveries as Sherlock’s ‘brother’ – Sherrinford Holmes – helps Lord Ingram to ferret out and piece together the evidence needed to exonerate him. There’s no question the stakes are high; this is the first time we’ve seen Charlotte even the slightest bit rattled, and the pervasive sense of fear running throughout the story is palpable.  For three-quarters of the novel, Ms. Thomas lulls readers into the belief that this is the story – only to rip out the carpet from under our feet and show it’s been about something else all along, revealing that while Ash’s life really IS on the line, he and Charlotte are facing a very dangerous, devious foe and they’re out to do much more than bring a murderer to justice.  That’s not the only twist in the tale however – a couple of chapters later I was reeling from yet another unexpected reveal that had my husband wondering what on earth I was swearing aloud about!

One of the (many) things that marks the Lady Sherlock series out as superior to so many other historical mysteries is the incredible amount of character development going on.  More layers of Charlotte’s complex personality are peeled back here, and we learn a lot more about Lord Ingram and his unpopular wife; but most importantly, with Ash and Charlotte together for almost the entire book we get to see the reality of their messy, complicated relationship and to gain a deeper understanding of why things between them are the way they are.  Their scenes together are electric, the sexual tension so thick it could be cut with a knife; the author wasn’t kidding when she said – “this is the one in which the romance between Charlotte Holmes and her good friend Lord Ingram really picks up steam”, so it’s not a spoiler to say that there are some interesting developments between them, but there is still much to hope for in future instalments.

Even with the high-stakes plot and the character and relationship development, there’s still time to shine a light on Charlotte’s family situation; on her plans for Bernadine, the older sister whose mind has never progressed beyond early childhood and on Livia, prone to melancholy and fearful for the future, but fiercely devoted to Charlotte – and, it seems, in love for the first time.  Inspector Treadles, who has been struggling ever since discovering Sherlock Holmes’ true identity, his judgement strongly coloured by his – probably typical for the time – misogynistic views as to what a woman should and shouldn’t be, proves a trustworthy ally, and by the end of the book – thanks to Charlotte – he’s realised the need to let go of this preconceived ideas.

The story is very cleverly constructed, making excellent use of flashbacks in the latter part to complete the bigger picture and fill in some of the information the reader almost doesn’t realise has been withheld. That’s not to say that I felt cheated at any point – I didn’t.  But I was able to figure out some things and not others, meaning that there were still plenty of surprises in store, and I loved that.

The Hollow of Fear is yet another tour de force from Sherry Thomas – and long may she continue to deliver them. A mystery filled with as many twists and turns as any Conan Doyle fan could wish for, a fascinating character study, and an unusual romance, it’s easily the best book of the series (so far) and my only complaint is that I have to wait until next year for another helping.