Book Review: A Wicked Conceit by Anna Lee Huber
By Angie BarryApril 2, 2021
It’s February of 1832. Kiera, the former Lady Darby, and her husband and private inquiry partner Sebastian Gage have returned to Edinburgh to prepare for the birth of their first child.
This should be a joyful time for the happy couple. But things are not peaceful in the Scottish capital, with a cholera outbreak gripping the city. And, on a more personal note for Kiera and Gage, the publication—and subsequent dramatization—of a book called The King of Grassmarket has turned them into unwilling celebrities.
The wildly popular book and subsequent play claims to be the true story of infamous criminal Bonnie Brock Kincaid, a sometimes-ally of the Gages. Kincaid’s none too happy for the extra notoriety, either, which has put his illegal operations under a concentrated spotlight.
I studied Bonnie Brock’s drawn countenance. This entire affair obviously infuriated him. Someone he trusted had shared intimate details about his life and they’d been turned into fodder for the public’s entertainment, to the monetary benefit of some unknown writer. And because of it, not only were his gang’s activities now under even greater scrutiny, but other criminals were encroaching on their territory, thinking to claim the same glory without understanding the cost, and besmirching Brock’s reputation in the process. There was much to be enraged by.
But I also noted something I hadn’t expected. All of this seemed to genuinely trouble him. Beyond anger, beyond disgruntlement. The shadows around his eyes, brackets about his mouth, and wariness of his surroundings denoted a deeper level of uneasiness and, dare I say, distress.
For Kiera and Gage, the book has also tarred them with the same brush, implying they’re corrupt investigators involved with bribery schemes and casting aspersions on the paternity of Kiera’s unborn child.
With Kiera’s confinement fast approaching and The King of Grassmarket’s popularity only rising, the Gages are determined to uncover the author’s true identity and counter their spurious claims. The couple’s determination only grows when a rash of thefts breaks out, further implicating Kincaid, and a related murder turns them all into suspects.
And if that weren’t enough to darken their days, Kiera’s once-supportive sister Alana has abruptly turned into an outspoken malcontent, heaping scorn and disapproval just when Kiera needs her the most.
I could appreciate that she was anxious for the safety of me and my child. I could even understand why she would suggest I temporarily withdraw from taking part in any murderous inquiries. What I couldn’t accept was her determination that I should retire from assisting Gage in his work as a gentleman inquiry agent entirely and forever.
She knew what pride I’d taken in discovering I was skilled at working out the complexities of my and Gage’s investigations, and the sense of purpose I derived in wrangling the truth into the light and bringing justice to those who had been wronged or murdered…
That she should brush my feelings and accomplishments aside in her single-minded effort to impose her will by forcing me to conform to the familiar mold pressed upon every upper-class lady—a mold I had never fit—was both baffling and distressing. I had always been able to rely upon my sister’s unwavering, rock-solid support, but now, when I needed it most, I found that it was built upon sand.
A Wicked Conceit is the ninth installment in the Lady Darby Mysteries, and Huber continues to charm with her plucky outsider of a heroine. It’s been deeply satisfying to watch Kiera’s progression from traumatized hermit to confident investigator who boldly faces down society’s disapproval while blazing her own path. There’s a fine line between modern feminist sensibilities and accurate historical mores in this series—thus far, Huber has managed it with the flair of a tightrope walker.
Equally enjoyable is seeing Kiera and Gage’s relationship continue to evolve, now that certain family secrets have come to light and the pair has embarked on parenthood. Huber is doing a masterful job of keeping their dynamic interesting and compelling now they’re an established couple, something other authors often struggle with once the “will-they, won’t-they” question has been answered.
Established fans know things are always bound to get exciting when the dashing yet dangerous Bonnie Brock Kincaid shows up, and this adventure is no different. There’s never any question of Kincaid coming between Kiera and Gage—love triangles have become far too overused, and it’s a relief that there isn’t so much as a whiff of that here. But the brawny Scottish Robin Hood still shakes things up for our heroes, proving to be just as helpful as he is infuriating.
This is a novel that takes its time in really getting to the explosive stuff, so be prepared for a slow start while Huber fully establishes the setting and characters before building up some shocking stakes and surprises. The second half more than makes up for the leisurely first, with some downright thrilling scenes.
And while a period-accurate plague (cholera, in this case, instead of COVID-19) lurks in the background of A Wicked Conceit, Huber hasn’t made it the focus of the story, so any readers hoping to escape the current pandemic won’t feel trapped in an identical situation.
As a whole, A Wicked Conceit is another thoroughly enjoyable novel from an author who has yet to disappoint. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, atmospheric settings, and strong female investigators should have Huber on their automatic buy list.