Book Review: A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder by Dianne Freeman
By Janet WebbAugust 13, 2021
November 1899. London. Life is coming up roses for Frances Wynn, the widow of the late Earl of Harleigh. She’s soon to be married to her next-door neighbor, the dashing George Hazelton. She and George share an affinity for solving troublesome mysteries. Frances is enjoying her fiancée’s company without the interference of her high-maintenance mama since her mother and her daughter Lady Rose are in Paris for a pre-wedding shopping trip. Frances and George are socializing in exalted company—the “visiting members of the Russian royal family,” to be exact.
One of the delights of a continuing series is getting an early indicator of an aha moment, like now when Frances is sure everything is tickety-boo because she has life in the palm of her hand. But wait, in the third book in Dianne Freeman’s Countess of Harleigh mystery series, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder, she felt similarly.
Why does it always happen that just when I begin to feel life simply couldn’t get any better, fate drops a disaster into my path to prove me right?
While I have no idea how common this phenomenon may be among people in general, it happens to me with rather exasperating frequency.
The Countess of Harleigh series concerns itself with timeless themes, like “money, independence, and family relationships.” Also noteworthy is Frances Wynn’s background: she is an American “Dollar Princess,” like Miss Stella Kendrick, the heroine of Clara McKenna’s Stella and Lyndsy mystery series. Unusually for the time, Frances controls her own money, money she wrestled for control over from the new Earl of Harleigh.
Imagine the worst thing that could happen to a fiancée on the cusp of marriage. If you guess your husband-to-be is already married, go to the head of the class. A woman with a foreign accent, Miss Irena Teskey, tells Frances that she is engaged “to a man I know to be my husband.” Irena describes discovering her husband is in London, after being parted for so many years, as “the very essence of romance.” Frances is having none of it.
“Just like a fairy tale.” I struggled to keep the words as light as possible, but even I could feel the chill in my tone. “And it’s just as unbelievable.”
“You don’t want to believe me, or that Hazelton deceived you. I’m sorry, my dear Countess, but your fiancée happens to be my husband.”
“Your story doesn’t even make sense. Why would Hazelton have been sent to your rescue?”
She narrowed one eye. “I couldn’t say with any certainty, but doesn’t he do something for your government?”
I only just managed to restrain a gasp as a chill overtook me. She’d bumped right up against the truth with that comment. He did do “something for the government.” Another truth she’d spoken was that I didn’t want to believe her story. That would mean George had deceived me. But I couldn’t believe it of him. He would never have asked me to marry him if he wasn’t free. I hated to admit it, but much of my anger at Miss Teskey had arisen from fear—that she was telling the truth.
But Teskey’s story seems a complete taradiddle, like her assertion that she is “the illegitimate daughter of Russian royalty.” Frances trusts that George will clear everything up but although he confidently asserts that he is not Irena’s husband, he confirms that she is indeed Russian royalty on the distaff side. It’s also not impossible that Irena might be in some danger. Almost despite herself, Frances invites the troubled young woman to stay with her until things get sorted out. Perhaps that will quell the inevitable gossip. It’s too much to hope that the neighbors won’t get a whiff of the untoward happenings, however. As a “glow of excitement lit her vulturine eyes,” Mrs. Chiswick tells George and Frances that they are under watch. She freely admits: “I just wondered what happened out here this afternoon. Jackson told me there was quite a commotion right in front of your house.”
Unconventional, dramatic Miss Teskey is not an easy house guest. Frances bears the brunt of entertaining her while George tries to sort out the truth from Irena’s exaggerations and flat-out lies. One day Frances spots Irena “sleeping” in the chill of the backyard. Why would she do that: does she have a “taste for opium?”
Leaves crunched under my shoes as I approached her. “Miss Teskey, you must wake up.” When my voice didn’t rouse her, I ignored the sense of dread tickling the back of my neck and touched her arm. I jumped back as her head lolled to the side, revealing angry red marks on her neck—her eyes wide open and sightless.
Miss Teskey was dead.
This is not good. Naturally, suspicion will fall on her and George. Frances says as much to her fiancée and her Aunt Hetty. She’s unnerved that George has “consumed the small mountain of food he’d piled on his plate.” He points out he hasn’t eaten since that morning.
He took a sip of his wine and followed my gaze. “I haven’t eaten since this morning, what with running after Irena’s things, then taking charge of Bradmore, then . . . Well, you’re aware of everything that happened this afternoon.
Frances knows that she and George didn’t murder Irena but if they want to get married as planned, finding Irena’s murderer is an urgent priority. It doesn’t help that royalty doesn’t care to be interrogated about illegitimate progeny. But if they want a honeymoon (and not one of the busman’s holiday type), they’ll have to work side by side to solve a crime. A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder is a very enjoyable outing from Dianne Freeman—what’s next for Frances and George?