A Strange Scottish Shore (Emmeline Truelove #2) by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Gemma Massot

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.

But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents – and Truelove’s courage – to their most breathtaking test yet.

Rating: Narration – C- Content – A-


Why do audio publishers employ inexperienced narrators to work on major releases by big-name authors? I know everyone has to start somewhere, which is why I make a point of picking up audios using first time – or very early-in-their-careers – narrators; there have to be some who start out fairly well and then get better over time. Sadly, however, most of the newbies I have listened to recently have turned out to be fairly poor and have not done justice to the stories to which they have been assigned. Giving this book to an untried narrator is akin to giving the kid next door the lead role in Hamlet at the RSC. A Strange Scottish Shore is another title that’s being consigned to the “wish they hadn’t done that” pile, because while Gemma Massot has an attractive speaking voice, she lacks the experience and acting chops necessary to perform a tale of such complexity and bring it to life.

A Strange Scottish Shore is the second book in Juliana Gray’s quirky series of Edwardian era historical mysteries (with an unusual twist) featuring the intrepid Miss Emmeline Truelove and the dashing but enigmatic Marquess of Silverton. When I picked up the first book (A Most Extraordinary Pursuit – and it would be wise to read or listen to that before starting this one) I was expecting a straightforward historical mystery, but quickly had to adjust my expectations when our heroine began routinely having conversations with the deceased Queen Victoria and, later on, her late father. Miss Truelove, who had been secretary to the political colossus that was the Duke of Olympia up until his death, was asked to travel to the Greek islands in order to track down the new duke, who had gone missing, in the company of the unspeakably gorgeous but empty-headed Lord Silverton. Silverton, naturally, turned out to be far from stupid (he’s an early 20th century James Bond!) and what followed was an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining story that combined elements of mystery, mythology and time travel with a soupçon of romance and turned out to be unlike anything else I’ve read in the genre and left me eager for more.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Advertisements

Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirsten Potter

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Severine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French Revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing 12-year-old daughter.

Severine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl unleashes treason and murder…and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Rating: Narration – B Content: A-

In Beauty Like the Night, the sixth entry in Joanna Bourne’s acclaimed Spymasters series, the author turns her focus to Séverine de Cabrillac, sister of Justine (heroine of The Black Hawk) whom we first met when she was a very young child being taken away from revolutionary Paris by the man she now calls ‘Papa’, William Doyle, Viscount Markham.

Sévie grew up in England alongside Doyle and Maggie’s (The Forbidden Rose) children and among various agents of the British Service. Aged seventeen and fed up with being treated like a child, she ran off to join Military Intelligence – the Service’s less efficient cousin – where she made herself a formidable reputation as a spy; and on her return home after the war, she set up as a private investigator and has earned herself a name for being every bit as tenacious, clever and frighteningly effective as she was during the war.

Her reputation for getting results is not, however, the only thing about Sévie that leads Raoul Deverney to enter her bedroom late one night and to calmly demand the return of a missing girl and a missing amulet. Sévie is surprised – but not frightened – at waking to find a man bearing a knife sitting on her bed; she knows she is capable of defending herself, and equally calmly – and quite truthfully – says she has no idea what he’s talking about. As they converse, Sévie is sizing the man up, coming to the conclusion that he’s either mad or deadly – and is fairly sure he’s not the former. But something about him unsettles her, never more so than when he gently touches a hand to her cheek before he disappears into the night.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

An Unsuitable Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: B

I freely admit that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my hands on this third and final instalment of K.J. Charles’ Sins of the Cities trilogy, eager to discover who has been violently disposing of anyone with knowledge of the missing heir to the Moreton earldom and to find out how all the pieces of the puzzle the author has so cleverly devised fit together.

Note: The books in this series could be read as standalones (although I wouldn’t advise it!), but there is an overarching plot that runs through all three, so there are spoilers in this review.

A trail of arson and murder began – literally – on the doorstep of unassuming lodging house keeper, Clem Tallyfer, when the dead, mutilated body of one of his lodgers, the drunken, foul-mouthed Reverend Lugtrout, was dumped on the front steps.  An investigation by two of Clem’s friends – journalist Nathaniel Roy and private enquiry agent, Mark Braglewicz – revealed that someone was trying to do away with anyone who knew that the Earl of Morton (Clem’s half-brother) had committed bigamy.  He entered into a marriage in his youth with a beautiful young woman of low social standing and soon abandoned her, not knowing she was pregnant. She gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl she named Repentance and Regret – who have since disappeared without trace. These facts have set in train a series of events which have led to blackmail, abduction, arson and murder; someone is killing those with any knowledge of the earl’s first marriage and is trying to find his children – most importantly his legal heir – likely with similarly nefarious intent.

In the previous book, An Unnatural Vicewe discovered that the twins – who go by Pen and Greta – have been hiding in plain sight for the past decade, earning money and acclaim as the Flying Starlings, the music-hall trapeze act Clem takes Rowley Green (the object of his affections) to see near the beginning of book one, An Unseen Attraction (hah! Clever, Ms. Charles – they’re an ‘attraction’ and are also ‘unseen’ for who they really are ;)).  Following Moreton’s death, the killer – whose identity and motivations remain unknown – steps up his attempts to find the twins, which is when Justin Lazarus, medium extraordinaire and self-proclaimed, all-round shifty bastard finds himself in big trouble. Forced to flee his home – and London – in fear for his life, when An Unsuitable Heir opens, Justin and Nathaniel Roy are hiding out at Nathaniel’s house in the country while Mark attempts to contact Pen and Greta and keep them safely hidden until such time as Pen can stake his claim to the title.

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

This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Rating: B+

With two series of historical mysteries already on the go – Lady Darby and Gothic Myths – Anna Lee Huber jumps into her new Verity Kent series with This Side of Murder, a smashing and engrossing tale of deceit, murder and betrayal set just after World War I.   As with Ms. Huber’s other books, the story is told in the first person from the heroine’s PoV, and there is plenty of astute observation and historical flavour that puts the reader firmly into the world of post-war England some seven months after the Armistice. The isolated island setting and disparate group of individuals who comprise the secondary cast list are most definitely reminiscent of some of the works of Agatha Christie, but this is no copy-cat story, and it will certainly work for fans of historical mysteries whether they’re fans of Christie or not (for the record, I’m not, and it certainly worked for me!).

Mrs. Verity Kent is about to decline an invitation to a house party to celebrate the engagement of one of her late husband’s closest friends when she receives an anonymous note indicating that Sidney  Kent may have been a traitor.  The sender clearly knows that Verity worked for the Secret Service during the war  – something she had never even told her husband – so intrigued, angry and wanting desperately to find out the truth, Verity changes her mind about the party and plans to attend, intending to see what she can find out from Sidney’s former comrades.

She is on her way to Poole Harbour at the wheel of her late husband’s prized possession, his Pierce-Arrow, when she almost collides with a Rolls Royce coming in the opposite direction.  Having ascertained no damage has been done or injury sustained, the driver of the Rolls, a handsome gentleman a few years Verity’s senior, introduces himself as Max, Lord Ryde.  During the course of their short conversation, Verity learns that not only is Max on the way to the Ponsonby house party, but that he had known Sidney and, for a short time, been his commanding officer.

Verity and Max jump back into their respective cars and head for the harbour, where the rest of the party is awaiting their arrival.  It’s a fairly disparate group; a few single men and women, three couples… none of whom appear – at first – to have a great deal in common, although it emerges that all of the men had served together in the same battalion as Sidney Kent, the “unlucky” Thirtieth – so-called because it was all but wiped out at the Somme.  Relations are strained and tensions run high as harsh words are exchanged and unpleasant accusations fly around; it’s clear this group of men doesn’t want to speak of or be reminded of their wartime experiences and actions – and just as clear that there are dangerous secrets being kept, secrets that someone is prepared to kill to protect.

Anna Lee Huber has crafted a truly captivating mystery here, one which has its roots in the trenches and on the mud-laden, bloody battlefields of northern France.  She very skillfully builds the tension and atmosphere of paranoia among the characters and does a superb job of portraying the post-war mood in England where so many people were coping with so much pain and loss and attempting to move past the horrible things they saw and did during the conflict.  There’s a real sense that the characters are barely able to contain their emotions beneath a thin veneer that could crack at any time, and while Verity is no exception, she’s a thoroughly likeable character; clever, resourceful and resilient. She married Sidney Kent shortly before he left for France and had been looking forward to beginning their lives together, but it was not to be.  They only managed to spend a few short periods of time together during his army leaves, and the fact that she never really had the chance to get to know Sidney has made her grief even more difficult to cope with. Like many others in her situation, she tried to numb the pain by drinking too much and partying too hard, using forced high spirits and plenty of booze as a survival mechanism.  But unlike many young women of her class, she was able to ‘do her bit’ during the war by working for the Secret Service, which did at least give her something to focus on besides her grief in the time immediately following Sidney’s death.  Now the war is over, she is struggling not only to cope with his loss, but also with the loss of the sense of purpose she had gained as a result of her work.

She’s a very relatable heroine and I very much enjoyed following her as she and Max try to work out who is murdering house-guests while she is quietly pursuing her own investigations into the accusations levelled at Sidney.  Verity is a little confused – and perhaps feels a bit guilty – about the fact that she is attracted to Max, but a sudden and very unexpected development gives her no time to contemplate it and instead causes her to question everything she knows about Sidney and her marriage and sends her investigation off in a different – and dangerous -direction.

The mystery is very well-constructed and kept me guessing throughout as I eagerly turned the pages, anxiously awaiting each new twist, turn and clue.  It’s wrapped up most satisfactorily by the end of the book and the evil-doers are brought to justice – but Verity is left with a completely new set of challenges to face, and I am eager to find out just how she confronts them.

This Side of Murder is a terrific start to this new series of historical mysteries and is a book I have no qualms about recommending to all, whether you’re a fan of the genre, the author, or are new to her work.

A Strange Scottish Shore (Emmeline Truelove #2) by Juliana Gray

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.

But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents—and Truelove’s courage—to their most breathtaking test yet.

Rating: A-

When I read A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, the first of Juliana Gray’s historical mystery series featuring the intrepid Emmeline Truelove, I wasn’t – at first – quite sure what to think.  There’s a mystery, yes, and a bit of romance… but I wasn’t expecting the time travel element or the fact that the heroine has regular conversations with both her deceased father and the late Queen Victoria!  In the end, however, I enjoyed the story, which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before – or since, really – and in which the author does a great job of interweaving the various plot elements – mystery, romance, time-travel and oddness! – with a caper-type adventure and a hefty dose of Greek mythology.  The somewhat starchy Truelove and the gorgeously dashing Lord Silverton made a wonderfully odd couple as they struck sparks off each other throughout their travels and I was sorry to leave them at the end while also looking forward to the next book and hoping for answers to some of the many questions raised.

Before I go on, I should point out that there are likely to be spoilers for A Most Extraordinary Pursuit in this review, so if you haven’t yet read that book, proceed with caution.  And I’ll add that while it might be possible to read A Strange Scottish Shore on its own, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Maximillian Haywood – who became the Duke of Olympia upon the death of his formidable great uncle – has made a name for himself as an archaeologist, and specifically as one with expertise in historical anachronisms; in analysing objects discovered in strata at a time and place they shouldn’t have existed.  In the previous book, Max had gone missing – had been kidnapped, in fact – which is what led to Silverton and Truelove’s expedition to Greece to find him, and eventually to the discovery that Max is possessed of an incredible power which somehow enables him to reach through time and bring people through to the present or send them back to the past.  A Strange Scottish Shore picks up a few months after Truelove and Silverton parted on the Greek island of Skyros, having located the duke and gone their separate ways.

Truelove is no longer working as the Duke of Olympia’s secretary and instead heads up The Haywood Institute for the Study of Time which Max set up following his return from Greece.  He has sent for her to join him at a hunting party being held in the north of Scotland by Lord Thurso, where he has come across an object that doesn’t belong – but as she is boarding the train in London, Truelove catches sight of a familiar face, one of the men she, Silverton and Max had encountered on the Greek island of Naxos months earlier.  She knows he is likely following her to Scotland to get to Max and to get hold of the documents she is carrying to him – but before she can think more on the matter, she is joined in her first class compartment by none other than the Marquess of Silverton, looking as cheerfully handsome and nonchalant as ever as he informs her he’s received a telegram from Max and is also on the way to join the hunting party.

The sudden appearance of the red-haired man she had glimpsed in London sees Silverton haring off in pursuit, but following a scuffle, the man jumps from the train, and the ensuing delay while the matter is investigated leaves Silverton and Truelove unable to continue to their destination that day and forced to stay in Edinburgh overnight. Worried that perhaps the man is still following them, Silverton announces his intention to stay the night in her room, on the sofa of course – but when she wakes, he – and her document portfolio – are gone.

Truelove continues her journey and is met at Thurso station by Max, whom, she is troubled to discover, has no notion of what could have happened to their friend.  Once arrived at the castle, Max is able to show Truelove exactly what he has found that has so intrigued him.  Hidden away at the bottom of an old wooden chest is a suit made of a cool, slippery, unknown material that appears to have been fashioned for a tall, adult female.  The chest was found during the refurbishment being undertaken at one of the family’s properties in the Orkney Islands – an old, dilapidated castle which the present owner, Mr. Magnusson – the illegitimate son of Lord Thurso – intends to remodel into an exclusive hotel and resort. Neither Max nor Truelove has any idea what the suit is made of or its purpose, when Magnusson tells them it’s a selkie suit and then of the old family legend that tells of their ancestor – a fisherman – who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who came from the sea.  Having fallen instantly in love with her, the fisherman found her sealskin suit and hid it so she could never swim away and leave him – she stayed for seven years and bore him two children, but then found her suit and disappeared back into the sea.

Shortly after this discovery, Truelove and Max come face to face one more with their red-headed nemesis – who introduces himself as Hunter – and who seems to want something from them that they do not have.  He also has knowledge of the future, telling Max that he will write a book in 1921 about his experiences with time travel and says that he himself was born in 1985; but before he can explain further or harm either of them, Magnusson intervenes and Hunter escapes by diving out the window into the sea below.

When, the next day, Truelove receives a telegram from the duchess asking for information about Silverton’s whereabouts, she is forced to confront the heart-breaking truth; that he really is missing and she has no idea how to find him or even where to look for him.  Until something happens that makes her think that perhaps asking where to look is the wrong question…

A Strange Scottish Shore is an incredibly creative and entertaining story that kept me eagerly turning the pages as I wondered what had happened to Silverton, how – and if – Truelove was ever going to find him, exactly what Max’s power entails and how all of it related to the legend of the selkie, which is very cleverly woven throughout the novel with excerpts from it prefacing each chapter.  (The author points out in her note at the end that while this legend is her own invention, such stories are frequently to be found in Scottish folklore).  The characterisation of both leads is excellent and Truelove’s distinctive narrative voice is as strong as ever.  She is intelligent and perceptive, but wary of falling for Silverton, while he is a thoroughly charming rogue who, as her father tells her, should not be judged by the mask he wears.  Their relationship continues along the same lines as in the first book until his disappearance, when Truelove is forced to confront the truth of her feelings, and by her willingness to make a potentially life-changing sacrifice in order to find him, to admit that her attempts to resist him were useless.

The mix of romance, mystery and the supernatural is just about right for someone like me, who likes there to be an emphasis on the romance in mystery and adventure stories – and saying that is probably a bit of a spoiler, so I’m not going to say any more about the plot, which is complex without being impenetrable (but you do need to concentrate!) and superbly constructed.  Ms. Gray does answer some of the questions I had at the end of book one, but then proceeds to pose more and the book ends… if not quite on a cliffhanger, then certainly at a point at which it is clear that there is more to come.

A Strange Scottish Shore has cemented my commitment to this series, and I am eagerly looking forward to more. I’d definitely recommend both books to anyone who enjoys romantic historical mysteries and is on the lookout for something a little out of the ordinary.

Traitor in Her Arms (The Scarlet Chronicles #1) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After her late husband leaves her in debt to some dangerous people, Lady Gabrielle McCullough is forced to become a thief. In the intervening years, her skills have not gone unnoticed. After being recruited by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the mysterious do-gooder spiriting aristocrats out of revolutionary France, Gabrielle crosses the Channel for the most daring mission of her life. Accompanying her is the Earl of Sedgwick, a thief in his own right and an enticingly masculine presence. The man is not to be trusted—nor is Gabrielle’s body when he’s near.

Ramsey Barnes would not say he is an honorable man. His whole life has been based on a lie; why change now? Although it pains him to deceive the tantalizing Gabrielle, he’s working toward an altogether different objective: unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Ramsey fails, his blackmailer will ruin him. But when Ramsey’s confronted with the carnage of the Reign of Terror, he seeks refuge in Gabrielle’s heated embrace. Now he faces a terrible choice: betray the woman who’s stolen his heart—or risk losing everything.

Rating: C+

Traitor in Her Arms, the first book in Shana Galen’s new Scarlet Chronicles series, takes place in Revolutionary France and features two individuals who are sent to Paris to undertake two very different and dangerous missions in order to fulfil debts owed to a pair of less than scrupulous characters back in England. A novel set in France at a momentous time in history featuring spies, feats of derring-do, a central couple who are keeping secrets and the Scarlet Pimpernel himself sounded right up my street; but while I enjoyed it for the most part, there were a few things about it that didn’t quite gel and prevented me from rating it any more highly.

The widowed Lady Gabrielle McCullough was left destitute when her husband died, and worse, is being hounded by a ruthless man who will not hesitate to hurt her if she fails to pay her late husband’s gambling debts. Having no way of raising such a large sum, Gabrielle has resorted to thievery; with the help of her housekeeper, who taught her to pick locks, and her staunch friend, Lady Diana, the daughter of the Duke of Exeter, Gabrielle has been stealing jewellery from various ladies of the ton in order to pay off the debt. She doesn’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it, but still, stealing is stealing; she doesn’t like it, but it’s that or end up working off the debt on her back in a brothel.

But at last, the end is in sight. If she can filch the lapis-lazuli necklace believed to have been owned by Cleopatra, the money she will make from it will be enough to set her free. She attends the ball given by the necklace’s owner and makes short work of breaking into the room in which the necklace is kept, only to discover that she has been beaten to it by Ramsey Barnes, the Earl of Sedgwick. Gabrielle has no idea what he could possibly want with the jewellery and tries to relieve him of it, but the charged atmosphere between them is impossible to ignore and she succumbs to a kiss – which she later realises he used to distract her and to regain possession of the necklace.

Gabrielle has no idea that Ramsey is in a not too dissimilar position to herself, although unlike her, his situation is largely of his own making. He is being blackmailed by someone who has discovered his deepest, darkest secret, something which could lead to his being condemned to death if it is ever exposed, and intends to use the necklace to buy her off once and for all. But she refuses to trade and ups the stakes, telllng Ramsey that she will only hand over the incriminating documents if he agrees to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

London is rife with stories of the man who is rescuing aristocrats from under the nose of Madame la Guillotine, but many believe him to be merely a myth. Gabrielle is among their number – until the evening she is approached by him in secret, and asked to perform a service which will mean great personal danger, but which, if successful, will mean freedom for a young woman and her daughter and a new life in England. The prison commander at La Force prison in Paris has agreed to smuggle out the Comtesse de Tonnerre and her infant daughter in exchange for Le Saphir Blanc, a bracelet containing an incredibly rare white sapphire that was commissioned by Louis XIV but which went missing in one of the raids on Versailles. For this job, the Pimpernel needs a skilled thief, and from what he has heard, Gabrielle fits the bill.

Gabrielle is a mess of different emotions. Flattered to have been asked, scared at the thought of the danger she might face in a Paris gone mad… but mostly relieved that here is an opportunity to get out of England and out from under the threat of her late husband’s creditors. She takes the mission and makes arrangements to leave for Paris as soon as possible.

Of course, Gabrielle and Ramsey end up taking the same ship for France, both of them being cagey about their reasons for going at such a time. Each begins by viewing their mission as either an impersonal but necessary task (Ramsey) or a noble quest to save innocent lives (Gabrielle), but their outlooks change quickly once they have entered a Paris in which the streets really do run with rivers of blood. Ms. Galen’s depiction of the horrors of the revolution and of the mood of fear and disquiet that pervades the city and its inhabitants is very evocative, and she doesn’t sugar-coat the fanatical devotion of the new republicans or the violence and destruction that continue to plague the city. The relationship between the couple plays out against this backdrop; they have known each other for a number of years and although Gabrielle was married to Ramsey’s best friend, there has always been a strong undercurrent of attraction between them. This pre-existing situation makes it easier for the reader to believe in that attraction and in their subsequent romance, although to tell the truth, there isn’t a great deal of romantic development in the story – which is not surprising given that Ramsey and Gabrielle are forever looking over their shoulders in fear of discovery. (Mind you, that doesn’t stop them from having sex on the floor of the catacombs!) It’s also rather a big stretch of credulity to believe that the Pimpernel would send someone like Gabrielle on such a mission. She’s supposed to be a super-expert thief, but we never really see that, and it’s quickly obvious that she’s completely out of her depth and just isn’t capable of the kinds of machinations and level of deception that she needs in order to pull off her task successfully. On the one hand, her fears and doubts about what she is setting out to do feel realistic and I applaud the author for showing those to the reader; characters need a little vulnerability otherwise there’s a danger they could become unlikeable. The problem is that Gabrielle almost always needs Ramsey or one of the other characters to help her out of a tight spot, and is following rather than leading. Plus, we know that Ramsey is using Gabrielle to get to the Pimpernel, which doesn’t exactly make for the ideal romantic hero; although it’s very obvious that his principal concern is to keep Gabrielle safe for her own sake and in spite of his ulterior motive.

Ultimately, Gabrielle is fairly bland but Ramsey made more of an impression on me. Stories in which the hero lies to the heroine are difficult to pull off, but Ms. Galen just about manages it here, especially when the reader is made privy to the secret that has come back to bite him in the arse and the reasons behind it. He made… let’s call it an unwise decision for altruistic reasons when he was a much younger man and exposure will risk more than his own neck.

The weaknesses in Gabrielle’s characterisation and Ramsey’s not-always-palatable motivations are the main reasons for my not rating the book more highly, although a couple of smaller things bugged me, too, such as the overly-chummy housekeeper and the fact that I couldn’t help wondering why, when so many historicals feature men landed in debt thanks to their profligate predecessors, Gabrielle’s late husband’s debts hadn’t been ‘inherited’ by his heir? When push comes to shove however, I did enjoy the story and will look out for the next one as the adventure portion of Traitor in Her Arms is very well done. I’d like a bit more actual romance next time, though.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in USA Today bestseller Sherry Thomas’s Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Rating: A

Reviewing mysteries is always a challenge as anyone who’s tried it will know.  And with one of this calibre, it’s even more difficult, because I want to tell you just how GOOD this book is, but I can’t tell you too much for fear of giving too much away and spoiling your enjoyment.  I could just say a) “Sherry Thomas is a genius – go buy this book!”, or b) “Don’t waste time here – go buy this book!”,   but that isn’t much of a review, so I will attempt – somehow – to do justice to this terrific story and author… and will no doubt fail miserably, at which juncture you should simply heed the advice given in points a) and b).

Note: I think it would be possible to enjoy this as a standalone, but I really would recommend reading A Study in Scarlet Women first. There are spoilers for that book in this review.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up on the day after the events that concluded the previous book.  Charlotte Holmes, ably assisted by her closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton, and Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard, has solved the Sackville murder case and learned of the existence of an infamous criminal mastermind by the name of Moriarty.  In addition, Charlotte worked out that that Lord Ingram – Ash to his friends – had pulled strings behind the scenes in order to make sure she wasn’t left alone on the streets after she ran from her father’s house, and orchestrated her meeting with the army widow and former actress with whom Charlotte now resides, Mrs. John Watson.  Charlotte doesn’t like being beholden to Ash, especially not as their friendship, while generally strong, has been sometimes strained since his ill-advised marriage six years earlier.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson have formed a working partnership as investigators, using the identity of Sherlock Holmes as a front for their operation.  Holmes suffers from a debilitating illness, so clients meet with his ‘sister’ – Charlotte – while the detective listens to the conversation from the next room.  It’s with some surprise that Charlotte identifies their latest prospective client, Mrs. Finch, as Lady Ingram, Ash’s wife.  Mrs Watson is concerned about accepting the lady as a client given their friendship with her husband, but Charlotte believes her need must be very pressing if it has driven her to seek Holmes’ help, and agrees to the meeting – although as Charlotte cannot afford to be recognised, the part of Sherlock’s sister will be taken by Mrs. Watson’s niece, Penelope Redmayne.  ‘Mrs. Finch’ explains that she is seeking information regarding the man she fell in love with before she married Lord Ingram, a young man deemed unsuitable by her parents, whose financial situation demanded she marry someone wealthy. While she and her erstwhile love agreed not to meet or write to each other once she was married, they planned a yearly assignation – on the Sunday before his birthday, they would both take a walk past the Albert Memorial at 3 pm, so they could each see that the other was alive and well. This year, however, her sweetheart did not keep the appointment, and she wants Sherlock Holmes to find out why. Penelope asks Lady Ingram for as many details as she can provide, but when she identifies the man in question as Myron Finch, Charlotte is stunned. Myron Finch is her illegitimate half-brother.

While Charlotte and Mrs. Watson set about looking into the disappearance of Mr. Finch, Charlotte is also mulling over the proposal of marriage she has received – the second one, in fact – from Lord Bancroft Ashburton, Lord Ingram’s older brother. Charlotte is fully cognizant of the benefits marriage to him would bring. It would rehabilitate her – to an extent – in the eyes of society and would soften her father’s stance towards her; she could care for her sister, Bernadette (who has some sort of mental disability) and could openly spend time with her other sister, Livia and generally return to the life to which she had been born. But even though Bancroft recognises and respects Charlotte’s keen intellect, he clearly expects her to discontinue her investigations as Sherlock Holmes, and she’s not sure that’s something she’s willing to give up.

As an inducement, Bancroft gifts Charlotte with a set of puzzles, which includes a message encoded using a Vignère cipher, a fiendishly difficult code that takes Charlotte some days to decipher. Once decoded, the message leads her to an address in Hounslow, North West of London, where she and Lord Ingram unexpectedly encounter Inspector Treadles. A man has been murdered – and appears to have named his killer before he died. Could he perhaps be the missing Mr. Finch? Or could he somehow be tied to Finch’s disappearance? Or, worse still, are Finch and the murder victim somehow tied to the mysterious Moriarty, a name which seems to inspire fear in those who know it, and someone of whom even the unflappable Bancroft seems to be wary?

Well… I’m not saying. As is clear, though, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I admit that I sometimes had to refer to the numerous highlights I’d made on my Kindle to refresh my memory about something, but for the most part, the story rattles along famously as Sherry Thomas skillfully pulls the disparate mystery threads together and then unravels them, bringing events to a climax I most certainly didn’t see coming. Just as impressive as her plotting is the way in which she continues to explore and develop her characters and the relationships between them, building on what we know of them from the previous book and rounding them out even more. We don’t see as much of Treadles in this story, but it’s clear that he’s been upset by the discovery of the deceit practiced by his good friend Lord Ingram (over Holmes’ true identity) and isn’t sure what to make of Charlotte any longer. There’s a romance in the offing for Livia, who is charmed by a mysterious young man who seems to see and appreciate her for who she is and doesn’t talk down to her or dismiss her interests; and we get to know a little more of the circumstances which led to Ash’s marriage to a society beauty he later learned had married him only for his money.

Anyone with any knowledge of this author’s work will already know that her work is highly creative and imaginative; she fashions strong, well-developed and engaging characters, crafts complex interweaving plots, and her historical romances are among the best in the genre. I should, however, warn anyone hoping for romantic developments between Charlotte and Ash that things between them don’t progress a great deal (if at all). The author sheds more light on Ash’s feelings towards Charlotte, showing he knows her better than anyone (and there’s a nice touch at the end where Charlotte both acknowledges this and admits she’s glad it’s Ash who knows her so well) and Charlotte… well, she doesn’t necessarily wish Ash had married her, she would just prefer he hadn’t married at all. She’s someone who relies on observation and logic and doesn’t have room for sentiment; yet in the face of all the logical reasons she should marry Bancroft, a small part of her can’t ignore the fact that she doesn’t find him attractive while his brother… is a different matter entirely.

There’s so much more to A Conspiracy in Belgravia than I can possibly say here. The characters, the relationships, the mystery … all are richly detailed and superbly constructed, making this a truly compelling, un-put-downable read. I stand by my original points a) and b). Just go and buy it.