From the desk of Rachel McMillan:
Though locked room mysteries are a trope often revisit in the genre, it takes an immense amount of talent for an author to convince you that theirs is, indeed, the first of its kind. At once an homage to a classic trope and an immersive gothic romance A Stroke of Malice is a compelling historical romance that is not only atmospheric but eerily relevant. Lady Kiera Gage (nee Darby) and her husband, inquiry agent Sebastian Gage long familiar with the gothic and macabre, are put in close quarters with a puzzling corpse when a revelry turns deadly. The prospect of a holiday at the Bowmount’s Estate in Scotland is welcome for the investigative couple, but nothing could prepare them for one of the most baffling of their many cases together.
Almost six months’ expectant, Kiera is looking forward to a warm, inviting, and seasonally riotous Twelfth Night party at a crumbling Scottish manor house: perhaps her last opportunity before her confinement. Herein, with an eerie Poe-like setting of crypts and cloisters, dead friars and monks, and things that go bump in the night, Kiera and Gage must decide whether what they are seeking is foul play or far more sinisterly supernatural. The masked festivities, dancing, merriment libations of the cold December night culminate in the demand by the chosen Lord of Misrule for a ghost tour. Thus, Kiera and Gage attend a forbidden part of the manor house that takes them several steps back in time. Things go amiss when their ghoulish tour leads to a body far more recently deceased than the skeletons tucked into the ancient stones. Thus, the lady and lord of the manor are eager to make good on the Gage’s reputations for solving the most sinister of crimes.
The mystery deepens as no one is missing from the manor or its surrounding area, there are no personal possessions and no distinguishing features. In addition, the regal Lady Eleanor’s husband has been absent in Paris for a long while with seemingly no communication, leading Gage and Kiera to wonder if the deceased is Lord Hemswick.
There are several suspects, including the charming Lord Marsdale and Kiera’s own brother, Trevor. But, with little to go on but their understanding of human nature, Kiera and Gage’s own relationship strengthens while their regard for the house party surrounding hovers on doubt. Interwoven are the deep sense of history that pervades every page and the aura of religious piety that interweaves the ghost hunts where monks once penitently lived. When paired with Gage’s pragmatism and Kiera’s penchant for soft philosophy, the reader is given more than a run-of-the-mill whodunit.
While the intricately closed-door plot will appeal to readers of Deanna Raybourn and Mary Stewart and even recall the more classic tropes of Northanger Abbey, this series is best experienced when you have had a chance to fall deeply in love with the characters and their love stories. For fans of the series, it is nice to see Kiera and Gage reunited with their nearest, specifically Kiera’s sister Alana, her husband Philip, and of course Trevor. To add, fan favourites valet Anderly and sweet lady’s maid Bree are given more and more page time as Huber paves the way for their secondary romance. Yet, the focal point is often the romance between Kiera, late of an abusive relationship with her first husband and Gage whose own familial limitations hover as they have in previous installments in the series.
Indeed, A Stroke of Malice deftly dives into the inner and darkest workings of human nature as well as the ramifications of past turmoil. In one instance, when Kiera’s painting arm is injured, we are given a glimpse into the power of her first husband’s hold over her as she reconciles a favourite hobby with the lingering memory of the force he used to make her sketch anatomy for his own gains. The past always, it seems tugs at Kiera and Gage’s heels: never more so in the memories that continue to pervade the lives, they have grafted together.
Perhaps what is most poignant is the unfortunate parallel between Kiera and Gage’s isolated world and our current world events. This is very much a book that finds itself saturated in isolation: the characters are trapped with their own shortcomings, failings, and suspicions even while the cholera outbreak in Edinburgh has Kiera too cognizant of the danger of carrying a child during a pandemic. The rustic atmosphere and the hallowed halls might resonate more with readers during a time when the world is shut off and we are in a constant state of retreat.
But for all of the dark corners and the shadows of the human heart, A Stroke of Malice, like every other offering in this unparalleled gothic heart is at its core a love story. Like Sidney and Verity Kent (in Huber’s equally excellent and concurrently published post-WWI series), the Lady Darby mysteries are an excavation into the human psyche: creative, resilient, and in the case of its criminals depraved. For those who want a balance of passion with their poison, Huber does not disappoint with evocative language and lasting imagery that strengthen Kiera and Gage’s relationship. Gage is lovingly protective of his expectant wife and like Shakespeare’s similar Twelfth Night soirees, we all know that all will end well. But not before a splash of colourful characters, of love thwarted and denied, of envy and avarice and the things that go bump in the night coil us into a richly drawn tale, expertly plotted and marvelously paced once again establishing Huber as a pioneer in this golden renaissance of classic mystery.
4 out of 5 Stars
A Stroke of Malice: A Lady Darby Mystery (Book 8), by Anna Lee Huber
Berkley (April 7, 2020)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (384)
Rachel McMillan is the author of the Herringford and Watts mysteries, the Three Quarter Time series of contemporary romances set in opulent Vienna, and the Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries praised for bringing an authentic 1930’s Boston world to life while normalizing the fictional conversation surrounding mental illness. Her next novel, The London Restoration releases on August 18, 2020. Her first work of non-fiction, Dream, Plan, and Go: A Travel Guide to Inspire Your Independent Adventure, described as a romantic’s guide to independent travel, releases on May 5, 2020. Rachel lives in Toronto, Canada.
Cover image courtesy of Berkley © 2020; text Rachel McMillan © 2020, Austenprose.com