Fresh Meat: Mistress of Lies by Holly West

Mistress of Lies is the second book in Holly West’s series featuring 17th-century amateur sleuth Isabel Wilde (available September 29, 2014).

The events of Mistress of Fortune have left Lady Isabel Wilde shaken. Her best friend and confidant has run off, her business is lagging, and while she’s been spending more time with the king, she’s not so sure where that’s going either. His offer for her to move in is tempting, but Wilde is reluctant to find herself under his thumb again.

Meanwhile, a young beggar girl appears on her doorstep and claims to be the daughter of Wilde’s eldest brother, Adam. And though the girl holds up a ring Adam clearly crafted as proof, it goes against everything Isabel thought she knew about her brother’s last days.

My intake of breath was audible. The name she uttered, Susanna Barber, was that of my long-dead mother.

“What game are you playing?” I said, frowning. “Tell me your real name!”

“My lady?” Charlotte said, reacting to me. “Is something amiss?”

“She calls herself by my mother’s name!”

The girl’s eyes welled. “You’re angry. I’ve made a terrible mess of things, haven’t I?”

“Tell me the truth then,” I said. “Who are you really?”

“Tis the truth. My name is Susanna Barber, I swear it. My father was Adam Barber. I’m your niece.”

I stepped back, stunned. What she said was impossible. My brother Adam died of the plague in 1665, unmarried and without children.

The trouble is, Susanna’s tale is a fairly convincing one, especially when she produces what is unmistakably one of Adam Barber’s rings, the sight of which fills Isabel’s heart with anger, sadness, and regret.

And while Isabel’s actions, as she attempts to discover who Susanna really is—if what she says is true or if she’s a fraud—make up the bulk of the story, they also define Isabel as a woman conflicted. Isabel wants connect with family and feels guilty about the way she believed her brother died. She wants what Susanna says to be true, but she also fears the girl’s a scam artist out for meager money Isabel doesn’t really have. She misses her friend, Sam, but she’s not sure how to mend what was broken. She feels a kinship for the surrogate family who took her in when she was young, but when she visits them she finds it no easier to be in their grip. She longs for a sign her relationship with the king is stable, that her petty jealousies are foolish, but she’s not sure she can give up her freedom to live in an apartment in Whitehall.

The themes of the book play off and against one another, as conflicted as the Lady herself. Freedom and family in an era of duty and propriety, secrets and lies in an era of corruption, on the coattails of pestilence. Heady stuff. 

Though she carries the title of Lady and can glide easily through the King’s halls with grace, Wilde has a toughness about her that’s admirable and she’s not too afraid to visit pest houses, gaols, petty criminals, and bawdy houses to get the answers she wants.

And, as usual, West expertly gives the reader a glimpses into another time and place:

My disguise could fool a stranger, but it might not pass muster with anyone who actually knew me.

The decor was feminine with rose-colored draperies, an abundance of silk pillows, exotic tapestries, feathers, and cheaply made, gaudy accessories…

One of the whores walked toward us languidly, as though she were gliding upon ice. She was not a beauty, but her body was luxuriously curved and suggested the fulfillment of any desire a man might have. She wore nothing but a silk dressing gown tied haphazardly at the waist, her nipples poking out cheerfully from behind the thin fabric.

“Good evening sirs,” she said in a voice so high it could not have its real pitch. “Tis an honor to entertain men so fine as yourselves tonight.”

“What’s going on in there then?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s just Bess, putting on a show. She’ll do another in an hour if you have a mind to see it., and in the meantime I’d be happy to keep you company.”

“A show?”

“Chucking’s her specialty.”

Whorehouse antics aside, the heart of the book is heart and the things is can lead someone to do, the things is can prevent a person from doing, and the things that hold us together.

He put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. “I want you to be happy here, darling We’ve been apart for far too long as it is.”

I settled into his chest, feeling his warmth against my cheek. How I loved this man. And yet, he would never truly be mine. This would always be the problem — why I could never give myself to him fully.

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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).

Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.

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