Book Review: A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber
By Angie BarryApril 2, 2020
It’s January 1832 in Scotland, and Kiera — former Lady Darby, now Mrs. Gage — and her husband, Sebastian, are attending a Twelfth Night party hosted by the scandalous and flamboyant Duchess of Bowmont.
Usually, such festivities would be of no interest to the introverted artist, but after spending the holidays with her family — and with her first confinement soon approaching — the expectant mother is excited to make merry with her friends.
But the gaiety quickly turns to horror when an amusing ghost tour through the crypt of Sunlaws Castle uncovers the decomposing body of a recently murdered man.
Lord Henry’s expression left no doubt that he was surprised to see the canvas sack, and a quick glance at Lord Edward’s face when his words faltered showed that the discovery was also unexpected.
He stepped forward. “Now what do we have here? I wonder if our friendly friar has been making a bit of mischief,” he remarked as he reached out to finger the largest hole.
I heard the pops of ripping fabric as he widened the opening. It was then that something inside the sack shifted, and suddenly out flopped an arm. Or rather, what was left of one. The skin between the gloved fingers and the coat had been gnawed.
One of the ladies screamed at the sight and another joined in as two rats scampered from the sack and dashed down the corridor into the darkness. The space rang with their shrieks of horror and the men’s shouts of outrage, making the dank air tremble…
By the state of the body, Kiera knows the man died between two and four weeks earlier; which happens to be the last time anyone saw the Duchess’ odious son-in-law, Lord Helmswick. But the decomposition makes positive identification impossible, complicating the Gages’ investigation.
To make things even more difficult, the Duchess and her family are clearly keeping secrets from the sleuths. The Bowmont family is notorious; the entire town knows that the five youngest of the Duchess’ seven children were sired by different fathers, though the Duke has claimed them all as his own, even as he maintains his own coterie of mistresses and bastards. The family has always delighted in shocking their neighbors with their wild ways — but could they now be covering up a murder?
The more Kiera and Sebastian dig, the more motive they find. Helmswick was a horrible husband to wife Eleanor, and any one of her six brothers would kill to protect her. Even the Lady herself might be the murderer; with motherhood looming on her own horizon, Kiera already understands a woman would do anything to protect her children.
And she also knows all too well how trapped Eleanor would have felt in such a marriage; how few her options were as a wife.
I moved closer to him, lowering my voice as I laid a hand on his forearm. “If Helmswick had returned to Sunlaws, and if he’d caught his wife in bed with Lord Marsdale… What do you think he would have done?”
“I don’t know,” he hedged. “But… it would not have been good for Nell.”
“Do you believe he would have taken her before the House of Lords and tried to divorce her, or sued Marsdale for criminal conversation with his wife?” I asked aghast.
Both were rare, but absolutely devastating to the wife when they occurred. Any property she brought to the marriage, as well as their children, would belong to the husband. But, of course, there was no similar recourse for wives who found themselves with philandering husbands. In truth, among the nobility, infidelity was almost expected among the men. And even when the husband was brutal, there was nothing the wife could do unless she could prove her life was in danger. This I knew well.
With a snow storm trapping the remaining guests at the castle and an entire family of suspects to interview, the Gages are dangerously outnumbered. Someone has already killed once to protect the Bowmonts, and they may have no qualms about doing so again; even if the next target is a pregnant woman…
A Stroke of Malice, the eighth Lady Darby story, proves that Huber still has plenty of steam left for this compelling heroine and her handsome, sleuthing husband.
The Gothic setting of Sunlaws Castle is evocative and ominous, especially when combined with the gala opulence of the Twelfth Night party and the wintery, snowy landscape outside. As an extra dose of tension, a cholera epidemic nearby directly threatens an established character.
Several familiar faces make appearances — Kiera’s brother Trevor, sister Alana, and brother-in-law Philip; the roguish Lord Marsdale; Charlotte, Lady Stratford — but the colorful Bowmonts easily outshine the rest of the supporting cast.
They’re outrageous, untrustworthy, and season the plot with both danger and excitement. No spoilers, but one, in particular, adds a new complication to Kiera’s life that is sure to have far-reaching ramifications in future installments.
Huber is an expert at crafting strong characters and then throwing them into mazes of intrigue, and Malice is one of her wildest puzzles to date. Just when everything seems obvious, we find ourselves facing a blind alley and are forced to reexamine our conclusions. Take nothing for granted here; the truth is always more shocking than you assume.
And Huber also has plenty to say about the disenfranchisement of women and the disgusting double standards that have always plagued society, not to mention the chasm between the wealthy and the poor and how justice has never been equal between the classes. This isn’t a cozy, shallow tale, but a story with real meat on its spine.
Whether you’re already a Lady Darby fan, or just love historical mysteries starring clever, stubborn women, A Stroke of Malice is a must-read. Eight mysteries in and I still crave the next installment as soon as I finish the last. That right there is the mark of a great author.