Book Review: A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder by Dianne Freeman
By Janet WebbJune 24, 2019
In A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder, the second book in Dianne Freeman’s historical mystery series featuring the Countess of Harleigh, the adventurous countess finds out just how far some will some go to safeguard secret.
Some issues are timeless, like money, independence, and family relationships. Frances Wynn, the widowed Countess of Harleigh, is an American “Dollar Princess,” similar to the heroine of Clara McKenna’s debut mystery Murder at Morrington Hall. The time is August 1899, the tail-end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Unusually for her class and the era, Wynn lives independently with her daughter Rose. The money to own a house in London comes from her wealthy American family but she had to tussle with her brother-in-law (the new Earl of Harleigh) to gain control of her “own” money … events that transpired in Freeman’s debut mystery, A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder.
Now past the unpleasantness of being falsely accused of murdering her late, non-lamented, husband, Frances is enjoying the company of her sister Lily, her financially astute Aunt Hetty, and Lily’s friend Charlotte (Lottie) Deaver. Lottie is a bright young lady with a propensity to be somewhat clumsy, but Frances is fond of her protégée from New York City. The countess has myriad friends but she’s particularly close to Lady Fiona and Fiona’s brother George Hazelton. Frances has no secrets from George, a gallant friend and neighbor.
Most of the town has decamped to their country estates to enjoy The Glorious Twelfth, a time to shoot grouse with fellow aristocrats but Frances intends to enjoy some quiet time in London. Unfortunately, murder interrupts: Frances’s widowed friend Mary Archer is found strangled in her house. Based on the marks on her throat, the police deduce that Archer was murdered by a man. Inspector Delaney visits Frances to pick her brains: “Are you acquainted with Mrs. Mary Archer, ma’am?” After Frances says she and Mary were friends but not “that close,” the Inspector hands her a folded sheet of paper.
The note contained a complete summary of what I referred to as the battle of my bank account. A bitter and hard-fought battle with my brother-in-law, Graham, the Earl of Harleigh. We eventually forged a truce and Graham withdrew his suit, but the matter was of such a personal nature only my immediate family and two close friends knew of it—well, and Inspector Delaney. I lifted my gaze to find him observing me closely. “This was in Mary’s possession? However did she learn of it?”
“You never told her about this dispute?”
“Of course not.”
Delaney reveals that Mary Archer had “countless notes hidden in her home, detailing the private indiscretions of society’s elite.” How did she gather such incendiary information and for what purpose? Did members of society pay Mary blackmail to keep their secrets hidden?
Frances’s cousin Charles recently squired Mary Archer to society events, so he’s an obvious suspect. George and Charles (friends from public-school days) take tea with Frances: they press Charles for what he knows about Mary’s personal life, in the hopes of clearing him with the police.
George took a sip of tea, then carefully placed his cup on the table in front of him, clearly considering how much he could reveal. “There’s a rather sensitive side to this case and I’ve been asked to lend a hand, but rest assured if I must choose between working on this case or mounting a defense for you, I would certainly choose in favor of you.”
“You can’t do both?” Charles’s confusion showed in his blank expression.
“Not out in the open I can’t.” George gave him a reassuring smile.
George has been asked to vet all the notes found in Mary’s possession—the ones detailing high society’s peccadillos—before giving said information to the police. With strict instructions that she not put herself “in any danger,” George enlists Frances’s help to decipher Mary’s cryptic treasure trove of gossip. Frances’s house-guest Lottie lends Frances a hand and notices that many of the snippets are identical to the gossip in Miss Information’s column in the Daily Observer. Frances tells Delaney and George that she thinks Mary worked for the paper—can she be certain?
“Of course we’re certain. I read clippings of the column myself just yesterday. It was definitely the Observer. Why?”
Delaney pursed his lips and let out a long breath. “Because a man who works as an editor for that newspaper has also been murdered.”
It seems Mary Archer was the Observer’s Miss Information. What piece of gossip did she harbor that was so consequential that someone would commit two murders to keep it hidden? That is what Frances, her house-guests, and her dear friend George are determined to discover. Frances’s sleuthing takes her to Mary’s house where she gains a deeper understanding of Mary’s choices. She looks around at Mary’s home, “not the family home of her late husband, and not the home of her sister’s husband. Hers.” Frances knows a “woman would give a great deal for that sense of independence and self-sufficiency.” Her dander is up on Mary’s behalf.
… Mary should be with us now. She’d simply been trying to earn a living. What could she possibly have written that was so wrong she must pay for it with her life?
Frances Wynn is an English countess but she’s an American by birth and sensibility, and she lets nothing stop her from her solving Mary Archer’s murder. Truth be told, she’s “beginning to like this role of investigator.” Who knew that talent for solving puzzles could be a useful trait even “though the stakes were much higher?” Lovers of acrostics and word-puzzles will find much to enjoy in A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder and will undoubtedly look forward to Lady Frances’s next Lady’s Guide adventure.