Book Review: Dance with Death by Will Thomas
By Janet WebbMay 11, 2021
Like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol opening: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that,” the premise of Will Thomas’s thirteenth Barker and Llewelyn tale is also without doubt. Tsesarevich Nicholas (heir to Czar Alexander III) was a dead ringer for his cousin, Prince George of England. Their uncanny resemblance, almost twins, is the crux of Dance with Death.
It’s June of 1893, and royals from all over Europe are gathering in London for the wedding of Prince George of England to Princess Mary “May” of Teck. Readers will know Georgie, as Nicholas affectionately calls him, as George V, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather. The future Nicolas II’s entourage includes his private security and his ballerina mistress, Mathilde Kchessinska as well as members of his imperial family like Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich. Nicholas needs heavy protection because some members of his extended family would prefer they, not he, inherit the throne of Russia. He’s rumored to be the target of a professional assassin known only as La Sylphide. The young Russian (through the aegis of a trusted bodyguard) attempts to hire Barker and Llewelyn to protect him in their capacity as private inquiry agents. They turn him down but then decide to visit Kensington Palace where George, Nicholas, and the court are making a public appearance. Prince George is then attacked an anarchist who mistakes him for Nicholas and Llewelyn and Barker save his life. It unfolds very quickly: they “saw a man brandishing a pistol at an open landau.”
I did not wait for Barker’s permission. My professional instincts took over and I was off like a hare. Something flew over my shoulder and I looked up to see bits of copper gleaming in the noonday sun: Barker’s sharpened coins which he kept in his pocket as weapons.
“Kill the tsar!” the man bellowed just before he was struck by the coins.
I tackled the fellow about the knees and we both went down.
Llewelyn is immediately confused. He and Barker had been told that La Sylphide was planning to assassinate Nicholas but the man they thwarted was not the famed killer. While guards question the man a sudden buzz fills the room. Perhaps the assassin was in the area after all because the shooter’s head was suddenly not there and “bits of bone and teeth rained upon us like hail.” Barker yells at everyone to get down and then Nicholas himself appears, wondering what all the fuss is about—Barker quickly escorts him inside and the truth emerges.
He took two steps, then turned back. “I had intended to leave earlier, but I was delayed, and Georgie left for a fitting. He wants to look impressive on his wedding day. He took my carriage. I was waiting for a second. How did that fellow know my plans so closely?”
“The shooter? I assume he was milling about outside,” the Guv said.
“No; the second man who shot the first. That could have been my brains dashed out on the lawn. I mean, it was intended to be.”
After this miraculous coup—saving the life of the heirs to the British and Russian thrones is not insignificant—the partners reconsider. The professional security apparatus of Britain and Russia go back and forth, particularly with Barker. They don’t want him to help guard Nicholas: they do want him to be part of the increasingly fraught situation. Which is it? Barker plays it coy while tapping all his sources for information. Some informants are highly unusual, like Ho, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, but more significantly, a member of the Blue Dragon Triad.
Llewelyn visits Nicholas’s volatile mistress, prima ballerina Mathilde Kchessinska, who is very upset that Queen Victoria, is pressing Nicholas to marry. Mathilde is sure her Nicky only wants to marry her. Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich is assigned to watch over Mathilde, a challenging assignment. To put this in perspective consider that Prince George was in his late twenties when he married. Nicholas is five years younger so there’s a surfeit of testosterone, royalty notwithstanding. Llewelyn is blown away by the curvaceous ballerina, understanding why this woman was attractive enough to have a future tsar enchanted by her. He explains his role to the Grand Duke and the ballerina.
“I was the one who saved him during the shooting in front of Kensington Palace. He called me and my partner in to discuss some matters, including the matchmaking by Her Majesty, who is negotiating a marriage between the tsarevich and Princess Alix of Hesse, who was left behind by the late Prince Albert Victor.”
The dancer’s nostrils flared. “That scarecrow isn’t going to marry my Nicky. It is a damnable lie! That harpy had better keep her pointed nose out of our business or we shall cut it off.”
“I never cared much for the princess myself,” I fibbed. In truth, I had no idea what Alix of Hesse was like. “She’s as cold as a herring and not particularly bright. Bit of a dullard, in my opinion. Certainly not as lovely as you.”
Perhaps Llewelyn is channeling a famous quotation from British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, “Everyone likes flattery, and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.” Also true of royal mistresses?
The assassin, Sofia Ilyanova, is referred to as Llewelyn’s old nemesis. The struggle between the assassin and the personal inquiry agent is very personal and it makes me want to comb through the twelve earlier Barker & Llewelyn books to find out the backstory.
In a previous review of Lethal Pursuit, Angie Barry captures the appeal of a Barker and Llewelyn mystery:
Unlike most mysteries, a Barker and Llewelyn story isn’t one you necessarily want or need to unravel yourself. Thomas makes the journey itself, the unexpected detours and sudden surprises, the real reward. Sometimes it’s just nice to let a novel carry you along like a boat in a current, admiring the scenery and stellar conversation while someone else does the steering or rowing.
The tension never lets up in Dance with Death. The partners are attacked and somehow escape death. Someone does not want them to discover who is paying for the services of the assassin. Could it possibly be personal? Or perhaps some kind of mixture? The two men mingle in high society attending a royal masked ball and descending into underground grottoes as they unravel the mystery. If they are unable to stop the assassin, they will be held responsible for allowing the crime of the century to be committed. The race is on! This is my first but definitely not my last Barker & Llewelyn mystery.