Book Review: A Certain Darkness by Anna Lee Huber

Anna Lee Huber's A Certain Darkness is a historical mystery set in Downton Abbey-era post-war England, and featuring indomitable heroine Verity Kent. Check out Doreen Sheridan's review!

The Great War might be over, but English spy Verity Kent and her husband Sidney are still hot on the trail of a traitor in their own government who might be funneling weapons to Irish Republicans. The Kents have a long and storied past with their prime suspect, Lord Ardmore, who seems to take great delight in antagonizing Verity especially. Before they can close in on him further, however, they’re drawn off to the continent following an urgent summons for Sidney from a French gendarmerie.

Back during his own investigations into the treachery that left him for dead during the chaos of the German offensive of 1918, Sidney had come across a Mademoiselle Adele Bavarel, who had been the local French contact of the traitor in his own battalion. Now Adele has been arrested in Amiens, and is refusing to speak to anyone but Sidney, claiming she still has information that could lead to the capture of the rest of the spy network she’d once been a part of.

With the Kents at an impasse with Ardmore, they decide to risk leaving the home investigations in the hands of their trusted friend and colleague Max Westfield, the Earl of Ryde, while they go to interview Adele together. But Adele is surprisingly cagey, making more demands than offering information. The Kents leave her in disgust but fully intend to make another run at her the next day. Alas, she’s dead before they have a chance to return, in an apparent suicide that inflames the local gendarmerie’s antipathy to Verity’s involvement in the case.

This isn’t, of course, the first time that Verity has been blamed for something outside of her control.Their own case against Ardmore seems to have stalled due to how easily her own testimony against him has been swept aside, as she discovers to her dismay when interviewing a clandestine source:

Based on the fact he couldn’t look me in the eye it was clear he knew who [I] was despite [my boss] C’s maneuvering to try to keep my identity concealed. What wasn’t clear was whether the Scot had figured this out on his own or if his commanding officers had discussed my involvement while reviewing the issue. After all, I had a number of detractors among the heads of the intelligence community—two in particular—and they and the officers in the War Office, in general, tended to believe women were overall unreliable agents, despite ample proof to the contrary.

Verity, however, has enough smarts and spirit to recognize that Adele did not kill herself but was silenced before she could say more to the Kents. The question now is who would have gone to such great lengths to keep Adele from speaking further. More promisingly for their combined aims, had she perhaps let on more to the Kents than they’d realized during their initial interview?

As the Kents travel around Europe in search of the incriminating documents Adele had cryptically alluded to, they find themselves in surprising amounts of danger, even coming under fire while leaving one of Adele’s prior residences. This leads to Sidney having a crisis of confidence, as he begins to question how much he’s willing to continue to risk for his country, saying to Verity:

“I understand that recovering these documents is important. I understand that you find purpose and meaning in continuing this intelligence work. I do, as well. I just… I’m not sure it’s worth our lives anymore.” His face paled, making his features stand out in stark relief. “I lost enough friends to the war, watched enough men die. “ He inhaled sharply through his nostrils. “I don’t owe my country anything more. I definitely don’t owe them my wife.”

 

I could hardly argue with that. I didn’t want to argue with it. But a part of me still balked at the idea of abandoning this investigation when it felt as if we were close to solving it [in addition to] my heightened awareness of how drastically the events of the past could affect the future.

Sidney’s own PTSD plays a large role in the proceedings, as Verity must help her husband exorcize the demons of his war experience in order to head off more violent conflict. But what will Verity do when she discovers a terrible secret about the war itself, one grave enough to shake even her previously ironclad belief in her superiors in the espionage chain of command?

A Certain Darkness realistically depicts the thrills, heartaches and ennui of spycraft in the early 20th century. The Kents spend a large part of the narrative feeling wet and miserable while crisscrossing a rainy France, Holland and Belgium in pursuit of the truth, while also working to strengthen their marriage. This book isn’t necessarily the best place for newcomers to the series to begin: While it’s easy to pick up on the information on offer in order to follow the plot, the tonal shifts can be confusing for anyone who isn’t already invested in the Kents’ story. If you’re an existing series fan, however, you likely won’t want to miss the further developments of this dashing spy couple as they continue to untangle treachery at home and abroad.

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