Harper: New York
Lady Emily Ashton (nee Bromley) finds herself a very young widow, barely acquainted with her very wealthy, big game-hunting husband before he dies of fever in darkest Africa. So begins Tasha Alexander’s first Lady Emily mystery and it is a fascinating debut. Well-crafted from a literary standpoint, And Only to Deceive portrays the latter days of late Victorian English gentry in historically accurate detail, while at the same time spinning a mystery yarn involving the shady world of antiquities forgers and black marketers.
The novel is also a biographical study of Lady Emily as she finds herself in a constant state of becoming. She is at first a widow who barely cares about her recently deceased husband, Philip Ashton, but who, with the help of his best friend, Colin Hargreave, and through his journals, learns to love him and his memory with deep and abiding passion. She is at first a rather conventional Victorian daughter of the aristocracy who becomes an independent, free-thinking and very strong-willed young woman who foreshadows the coming of the 20th Century and all of its social upheavals. At the same time, author Alexander portrays the very restrictive and circumspect world of Victorian manners and mores in a most enjoyable and non-pedantic fashion.
The story of Emily’s “liberation” is in truth the reflection of her growing knowledge and understanding of the husband she never knew. He was witty and intellectual and more romantic than she had ever, or could ever, have imagined– he commissioned an impressionist portrait of her by Pierre-Auguste Renoir as a gift of which she was unaware until after his death! His love of all things Classical, particularly the art and antiquities of ancient Greece, informed his intellectual life—and plunged Emily into unforeseen danger. She finds warnings of “grave danger” among her husband’s private papers; this danger seems to be transferred to her person as a mysterious scar-faced man shadows her in both London and Paris and then her Paris suite is burgled and left in total disarray. Her investigations take her to the British Museum, the Louvre, and Philip’s estate, Ashton Hall, in Derbyshire. Circumstantial evidence begins to build up and it soon becomes not only possible, but quite likely that Philip and his friend Colin have been involved in the elicit forging of antiquities and subsequent thefts of the real artifacts from some of the world’s great collections. Compounding Emily’s agony is the discovery of evidence that Philip might not have died but is still alive in Africa!
Tasha Alexander’s novel of Victorian manners and mystery is a delight to read and savor; if she can maintain this quality of writing and plot, the subsequent adventures of Lady Emily (there are two more that have been published thus far), I look forward to years of very entertaining reading. Three trowels for this initial entry in a new mystery series.