This is a brand new historical mystery, or is it a historical suspense? Whatever the case, here is an author to keep an eye on as the Lady Darby Mystery series debuts.
Copyright: November 2012 (Berkley) 368 pgs
Series: 1st in Lady Darby Mysteries
Sensuality: Mild period references to promiscuity
Mystery Sub-genre: Historical Suspense
Main Characters: Lady Kiera Darby, an accomplished artist and widow, society outcast
Setting: 1830, Scotland - isolated Gairloch Castle
Obtained Through: Publisher for honest review
Kiera's husband died unexpectedly a year and a half ago. Sir Anthony Darby married her for one reason only, to use her artistic ability to illustrate his book. He was an anatomist and surgeon, one of the men who dissected scores bodies to document how the human body functioned back when medicine was getting more scientific. Kiera was forced to do the illustrations of internal organs etc. during the dissections. When her husband suddenly died, the truth was revealed about her husband's work and her part. She is considered unnatural and evil by the majority of people and thus is an outcast. She has been treated very badly by society and has taken refuge, for most of the past eighteen months, at her sisters home in Scotland healing from the many emotional scars.
Kiera's sister and her husband, Alana and Philip, decide to host a grand house party and have several people stay for a few days. The book opens with the screams of one guest as the body of Lady Godwin is found in the popular shrubbery maze. The son of a London investigator, Sebastian Gage, is in attendance and begins the investigation while everyone awaits the nearest official to arrive, in about six days. Since Lady Darby is the closest thing to a medical examiner they have (after all her illustrations of bodies and internal medicine), she is pressed into lending a hand.
Kiera's past comes back to haunt her when the consensus is that she must be the murderer and she is plagued, even in her sanctuary, by slander and vile gossip. Kiera can't be sure that Gage isn't just keeping an eye on his number one suspect rather than really needing her assistance. Upon Kiera's examining the body, it is clear Lady Godwin died from a slit throat, but the surprise is how she had been pregnant - obviously due to an affair since her husband has long been out of the country.
Kiera is a phenomenal character. She is deeply wounded from being blatantly and coldly used during her marriage, then nearly terrorized after his death. She trusts only her sister and is fiercely loyal to her. Her assistance in the investigation shows that no matter how wounded and tormented, she has an inner strength that sees her through it all. She has her vulnerable moments, which are completely realistic, yet she steels herself and rises to strike down the killer amongst them. Sebastian Gage is a capable enough investigator, but he is also a ladies-man. His character transforms from a shallow flirt to a serious investigator that shrewdly eyes all the guests. He also shows he can have compassion. I liked his character and feel there is far more to him yet to be discovered. There is a tentative attraction between them that is so precarious it could crumble easily, which adds to the complexity and layers of this story. Alana is the paragon of a loyal sister and devoted mother with a surprising sharp tongue and fighting spirit. Her husband Philip is a good guy who loves his wife and clearly cares about Kiera and her rough life. His character was a careful balance of brotherly concern and Lordly authority. Lady Stratford was the surprising breakout character, but I can't share any more without some spoilers - so enough said.
The setting of isolated Gairloch Castle in Scotland was used to its fullest advantage. This setting gave some Gothic touches and helped to heighten the suspense. Well done. There is less a focus on heavy Scottish brogues and plaids and more on taking advantage of the castle in the challenging landscape. I think this strategy paid off well.
This is a traditional mystery in the sense that there are a limited number of suspects all staying at the castle, and figuring out the murder's timing and movements are almost as important as the motive to the solving the case. The plot unfolds as more information about the victim is revealed during the investigation, providing many suspects. I did pick up on the subtle clues and had fingered the killer, but the motivation was a surprise. The climax was high suspense and got the blood pumping. The wrap up promises a reunion of Kiera and Mr. Gage for the next book.
Great historical, great traditional mystery, and great suspense all woven together into an edge-of-your-seat story that leaves a lasting impression. I LOVED this book, I keep thinking about it after finishing it!!
Rating: Near Perfect - Buy several copies: one for you and one for each of your historical-mystery-loving friends for gifts this holiday season! :-)