Wednesday, June 19, 2024

#Review - A Ruse of Shadows by Sherry Thomas #Historical #Mystery #Romance

Series: The Lady Sherlock Series (#8)
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
Release Date: June 25, 2024
Publisher: Berkley
Source: Publisher
Genre: Romance / Historical / Victorian

Charlotte Holmes is accustomed to solving crimes, not being accused of them, but she finds herself in a dreadfully precarious position as the bestselling Lady Sherlock series continues.

Charlotte’s success on the RMS Provence has afforded her a certain measure of time and assurance. Taking advantage of that, she has been busy, plotting to pry the man her sister loves from Moriarty’s iron grip.

Disruption, however, comes from an unexpected quarter. Lord Bancroft Ashburton, disgraced and imprisoned as a result of Charlotte’s prior investigations, nevertheless manages to press Charlotte into service: Underwood, his most loyal henchman, is missing and Lord Bancroft wants Charlotte to find Underwood, dead or alive.

But then Lord Bancroft himself turns up dead and Charlotte, more than anyone else, meets the trifecta criteria of motive, means, and opportunity. Never mind rescuing anyone else, with the law breathing down her neck, can Charlotte save herself from prosecution for murder?

A Ruse of Shadows is the Eighth installment in Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock series. Charlotte Holmes is accustomed to solving crimes, not being accused of them, but she finds herself in a dreadfully precarious position as Chief Inspector Talbot from Scotland Yard, along with Inspector Robert Treadles, arrives to interrogate Charlotte for suspicion of the death of Lord Bancroft Ashburton. Charlotte’s success on the RMS Provence has afforded her a certain measure of time and assurance. 
She's also found herself under the protection of Lord Remington which has kept Moriarty temporarily at bay. Taking advantage of that, she has been busy, plotting to pry the man her sister Olivia loves, Stephan Marbleton, from Moriarty’s iron grip. Lord Bancroft Ashburton, disgraced and imprisoned as a result of Charlotte’s prior investigations, nevertheless manages to press Charlotte into service: Underwood, his most loyal henchman, is missing and Lord Bancroft wants Charlotte to find Underwood, dead or alive.

But then Lord Bancroft himself turns up dead and Charlotte, more than anyone else, meets the trifecta criteria of motive, means, and opportunity. Never mind rescuing anyone else, with the law breathing down her neck, can Charlotte save herself from prosecution for murder? The story is told in a series of flashbacks since it begins with her under investigation for Lord Bancroft's murder. We see Charlotte and Mrs. Watson investigating a 25-year-old murder for Treadles. 

We see Livia staking out a house in Aix-en-Provence which might be the house where her Mr. Marbleton is being held by Moriarty. We see Paris where Charlotte and Livia's sister Bernadine is being held prisoner to guarantee that Charlotte does what Lord Bancroft demands. This investigation sees the return of Mrs. Farr who lost her younger sister in one of Charlotte's earlier cases and who has been looking for revenge on the man who was responsible ever since.

*Thoughts* A Ruse of Shadows required more focus than prior books because it juggled multiple mysteries, included alternating time lines, and heavily drew on pieces from prior novels in the series. One minute Charlotte is being investigated which forces her brilliant mind to find a way to explain her role in a key event. Then we have three minor characters Jimmy, Mumbles, and Jesse being used to thwart Charlotte, only to find themselves having their lives changed with an opportunity of a lifetime. 

Livia has been traveling all around the globe. She has no clue what Charlotte has been up to, even though she is writing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I have a lot of respect for Livia for being so willing to stand with Charlotte even after everything that happened a year ago in this series. What is more curious is that Charlotte and Lord Ingram's relationship picks up steam, literally, with an erotic love story written by Charlotte. 

Finally, there are things that happen in this book that will catch you off guard unless you read these books as they were released. Charlotte is an odd duck, very smart and logical but sometimes a bit lacking in tact and social elegance. But the author definitely makes you love her because she's not perfect. I have heard that the publisher fully supports the authors intent to keep writing this series which is a good thing because readers are anxious for a confrontation with Moriarty. 

The interrogation

August 1887

Before Inspector Robert Treadles had wanted to be Sherlock Holmes, he had wanted to be Chief Inspector John Talbot.

The chief inspector had retired the year after Treadles had been promoted to detective sergeant, but Treadles had worked with him once. The senior officer had been patient and fair, interested not in producing likely-seeming culprits to prosecute but in chiseling away at a case until he had revealed everything about the crime and its participants.

Under any other circumstances, Treadles would have been delighted to welcome the chief inspector out of retirement-and to observe the wise old policeman again in a professional capacity.

Under any other circumstances.

The parlor of the hotel suite in which he found himself boasted dark varnished wainscoting, scarlet velvet curtains, and a deep pile blue-and-gold Turkish carpet underfoot. The décor had been conceived to provide luxurious warmth during London's long and gloomy winter. But on this sultry day, the room closed in.

Chief Inspector Talbot, his thick head of white hair combed back, his gaze kind yet penetrating, asked, "Young lady, may I inquire as to the nature of your association with the deceased?"

The young lady in question, a woman in her mid-twenties, was attired in a full English garden. So many roses, foxgloves, and hydrangeas flourished upon her dress that it had taken a while for Treadles to discern that the garment was made of a light green muslin. And, of course, embroidered sprigs of lavender proliferated across the circumference of the hem.

In contrast to the gaudy botanical excesses of her frock, her expression was solemn and blank.

"Lord Bancroft Ashburton was the brother of my friend Lord Ingram Ashburton. Several years ago, Lord Bancroft asked for my hand in marriage. I did not believe we would suit and declined his proposal."

She spoke with a calm detachment, as if she were fielding slightly intrusive questions at a tea party rather than inquiries stemming from a murder investigation.

"And was that the extent of your acquaintance?"

"Not quite. Due to certain events, I am now no longer welcome in polite circles. After I became an exile from Society, much to my surprise, Lord Bancroft proposed again."

Treadles, who had been in the middle of tugging on his collar, stilled.

He had learned some time ago that Miss Charlotte Holmes had been highly successful on the Marriage Mart: Several of the proposals she'd received had been considered not just good but spectacular.

Even so, to number Lord Bancroft as a suitor not once but twice.

"And I surmise that, once again, you turned him down?" murmured Chief Inspector Talbot.

"He withdrew his offer, rather," said Miss Holmes. "But you are correct, Chief Inspector, in that after much consideration, I still did not wish to marry him."

"And yet lately you have visited him-repeatedly."

She was, in fact, the only person Lord Bancroft had met with in the weeks preceding his death.

The grandfather clock in the corner gonged. Treadles glanced at it. Half past three in the afternoon.

Miss Holmes cast her gaze in the same direction. "Our tea should be here."

As if on cue, a knock came. Miss Holmes excused herself, went to answer it, and returned with a laden tea tray. She poured for her callers and handed around a plate of baked delicacies. "The hotel provides an excellent Madeira cake. The tea cakes are very decent, too."

The hotel also provided suites that functioned much as residences, with private entrances from the street. That Miss Holmes had chosen to lodge at a hotel, rather than opening up 18 Upper Baker Street or Mrs. Watson's house, had signaled to Treadles her intention of only a brief stay in London.

Surely she hadn't planned on becoming a murder suspect in so short a time?

Miss Holmes took a bite of the tea cake she had recommended. "Lately I have called on Lord Bancroft a little more than is my wont."

She glanced at Treadles. "Are you sure you wouldn't care for a tea cake, Inspector?"

Treadles's innards, wound tight, rebelled at the thought of sugar and butter. He didn't know how she managed to enjoy-or at least appear to enjoy-the rich assortment on her plate. "I'm quite all right, thank you."

Chief Inspector Talbot, in his dove grey Newmarket coat, sipped his tea and studied Miss Holmes. He seemed very much a benevolent if youngish great-uncle, inquiring after the latest doings of his favorite grandniece.

"And what would be the reason, Miss Holmes, for your more frequent visits to Lord Bancroft?"

The older policeman, too, sounded as if he were on a mere social call. Wildebeests rampaged inside Treadles's stomach. Talbot could control an interview as well as anyone. But unlike some other investigators from Scotland Yard that Miss Holmes had dealt with, including Treadles himself at one point, Chief Inspector Talbot never underestimated women.

"I received a letter from Lord Bancroft," answered Miss Holmes, who consumed her tea cake at a steady pace. "He expressed a desire to see me. The missive was unexpected, as were his sentiments. He had retired from public life under occluded circumstances, and I was curious as to why he wished to meet again."

"Did you find out why?"

"He told me that he feared for his life."

Treadles hadn't expected the lies to start flying so soon. When they'd met earlier in the month, Miss Holmes had said nothing to him about Lord Bancroft cowering in mortal dread. He tugged at his collar again, wishing for a draught of fresh air.

"And it appears now," mused Chief Inspector Talbot, "that his lordship was right in his apprehension. But if you will forgive my question, Miss Holmes, why did he wish to burden you of all people with the knowledge that he might be in danger?"

"Do you believe, Chief Inspector, that there is any reason why he shouldn't have?"

"I can play games with you, Miss Holmes, but I won't." Chief Inspector Talbot set down his teacup and leaned back in his chair. "Part of the reason that I am investigating this case is a matter of personnel: Chief Inspector Fowler, who most likely would have been given the portfolio, is otherwise occupied.

"But in truth, that is only a convenient excuse. The real reason is that in the past I have worked with certain more obscure bureaus of the government and have become trusted for my discretion. For example, I have long known that Ravensmere, where Lord Bancroft dwelt for the better part of a year, is no ordinary lodging house for gentlemen but a cushioned facility for sensitive prisoners.

"I have also been informed, though much more recently, that you, Miss Holmes, far from languishing in your exile, have in fact become the celebrated-but-reclusive consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, who has, among other great deeds, cleared my young colleague here of suspicion of murder last December."

Treadles could only hope that Miss Holmes would not think he had been the informer. It had been discomfiting to learn from Chief Inspector Talbot that the senior officer already knew of Sherlock Holmes's true identity. But at the same time, that had been nothing compared to the shocking revelations concerning Lord Bancroft.

The previous autumn, during the investigation of a murder for which Lord Ingram had been-briefly-the chief suspect, Treadles had met Lord Bancroft. It had seemed natural enough that with his youngest brother in trouble, Lord Bancroft had come to Stern Hollow, Lord Ingram's estate, to lend moral and practical support. It had seemed equally natural that after the case was resolved, Treadles had never heard from or about Lord Bancroft again.

The police and the public had eventually learned that Lady Ingram, Lord Ingram's then wife, had run away with a man named Moriarty. And that the body found in Stern Hollow's icehouse had belonged not to her but to her twin sister, killed by Moriarty to frame Lord Ingram.

In private, however, Lord Ingram had informed Treadles that no, Lady Ingram had never formed a romantic liaison with Moriarty. She had done something far worse: She had worked for Moriarty and used her proximity to Lord Ingram, and therefore Lord Bancroft, who handled highly sensitive portfolios for the crown, to ferret out bits of intelligence to pass on to Moriarty's organization.

Treadles had been chosen to assist Chief Inspector Talbot because he was already acquainted with Miss Charlotte Holmes, the current case's-as of now-sole suspect. And because he had at least met the victim and knew something of his general background.

Only to then learn that he'd known nothing of the dead man when Chief Inspector Talbot notified him that Lord Bancroft had not stopped by Stern Hollow last autumn as a concerned brother but as a perturbed perpetrator. He had placed a body in the estate's ice well, hoping to frame his brother. Moriarty had played the spoiler and swapped one body for another, but the scheme had begun with Lord Bancroft.

As for why Lord Bancroft had done something so nefarious? In the end, it had been to protect himself: He had been living a secretly lavish lifestyle, which he had financed by selling state secrets in his keeping.

"You need not worry that the knowledge of your secret profession will travel beyond this parlor," continued Chief Inspector Talbot to a Miss Holmes who, on the surface of it, did not appear remotely concerned.

Once Treadles had believed her unfeeling. But now that he knew her-and himself-better, he saw that in the past he'd missed a number of clues with regard to her state of mind. For someone who delighted in food, last autumn she'd scarcely touched the myriad delicacies served at Stern Hollow.

And now, despite her matter-of-fact praise for the hotel's baked goods, she ate not with the savor of a gourmet, or even the gluttony of a gourmand, but the resolve of a ditchdigger, one with a great deal of cold, hard ground to bore through.

"Even if I weren't required to keep everything concerning this investigation in the strictest confidence, I still wouldn't have interfered with your livelihood," Chief Inspector Talbot went on. "But I will need you to answer my questions honestly and completely, because I also happen to know that it was as a result of Sherlock Holmes's inquiries at Stern Hollow that Lord Bancroft's misdeeds came to light.

"You tumbled him off his pedestal-into infamy among a select few, and into obscurity in the eyes of the public. You made him an inmate. I did not know the late Lord Bancroft very well, but I cannot imagine that he would have wished to entrust the matter of his personal safety to the one who had deprived him of his freedom in the first place."

Miss Holmes, having finished the small tea cake on her plate, set it aside and took a sip of tea. "The crown deprived Lord Bancroft of his freedom, Chief Inspector," she pointed out, with the sort of perfect logic that worked only for a very few. "But yes, I see what you mean. The immediate assumption would be that Lord Bancroft would want nothing to do with me and vice versa.

"To a certain extent, that is correct. For the past few months, my patroness, Mrs. Watson, and I have been living in Paris, where her niece studies medicine. Upon receiving Lord Bancroft's letter, I was not moved to travel across the Channel solely for his sake.

"But recently we visited England for a different reason, and I thought I might as well look in on Lord Bancroft before I left again. A man such as he is hardly neutered when kept behind bars. It would be wiser, I felt, to find out his purpose."

"But once you found out his purpose, what compelled you to care whether his lordship's life was in danger? If you will pardon the observation, Miss Holmes, you are of a cool disposition and not given to sentiments another young woman might feel toward a man who has twice proposed to her. I can easily envisage you brushing aside Lord Bancroft and his sense of impending doom."

This was very blunt but . . . not wrong. Indeed, sometimes Treadles worried about his friend Lord Ingram, so in love with this woman who, by temperament, might not be able to return his affection in equal measure.

Miss Holmes took no offense at Talbot's remark. If anything, she seemed to warm up a bit toward the older man. "True, Chief Inspector. It would have troubled me had Lord Bancroft escaped. But his destruction at the hands of his enemies? That would not have affected either my daily appetite or my nightly rest.

"Lord Bancroft understood that. He offered me five hundred pounds sterling to find his faithful acolytes, who had scattered in the wake of his arrest, so that they could come to his aid. I told him that I would not bestir myself-not for him, in any case-for less than two thousand."

"I applaud your astute negotiation, Miss Holmes, but may I remind you that Lord Bancroft's crimes came to light largely because of his very unkind act toward Lord Ingram. Your friend Lord Ingram. Yet you still took him on as a client, this man who betrayed your friend?"

Chief Inspector Talbot appeared distressed at this line of questioning; Miss Holmes, not so. She had been about to go out when the policemen had arrived. Now, as if realizing she would not be going anywhere in a hurry, she removed her hat and placed it on her knees.

"Chief Inspector, I took on Lord Ingram's estranged wife as a client, too, when they were still married-and for far less than two thousand pounds. Also, do you believe Lord Ingram would have advised me differently, had he accompanied me to my initial meeting with Lord Bancroft?

"His lordship, as Inspector Treadles can tell you, has a truly noble soul. As disappointed as he was in his brother, he would not have wanted Lord Bancroft to die. Had I been able to save the latter's life and win myself two thousand pounds in the bargain, he would not have questioned my loyalty to him but only said, 'Well done, Holmes.'"

Chief Inspector Talbot cleared his throat. "That is, of course, between you and Lord Ingram, Miss Holmes. But did you also feel no compunction about the provenance of Lord Bancroft's funds? He would have paid you with money derived from the illicit sale of crown secrets, would he not?"

The wide brim of the hat in her lap featured an abundance of flowers, a circular boulevard of yellow silk petals. She smoothed the trio of ostrich plumes that erupted from its crown, dyed a matching, eye-jabbing yellow. "Are you trying to persuade me, Chief Inspector, that Lord Bancroft, a son of a noble family, and a man gainfully employed for many years in a position of high trust, did not possess two thousand pounds that he had procured by honest means?"

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