The Counterfeit Heiress by Tasha Alexander is the ninth Victorian mystery featuring amateur sleuth Lady Emily (available October 14, 2014).
The Counterfeit Heiress, the ninth book in the Lady Emily series, opens at a lavish costume ball that actually took place in 1897, hosted by the Duchess of Devonshire. Our narrator and plucky heroine is in attendance as the goddess Artemis—a choice that unwittingly throws her into yet another mystery.
When a man dressed as Pericles approaches her with the first half of a line from The Odyssey, Lady Emily—being a student and passionate fan of Homer—obliges him with the second half. But then:
He grabbed my arm, wrenched it, and stood too close to me, his eyes flashing. “You are not at all as advertised, madam. I believe my requirements were quite clear. This will not do in the least.” He turned on his heel and tore away from me.
Before Emily has any time to properly recover from the unexpected encounter, she and her friend Cecile, the French “lady of a certain age”, decide to say hello to an old friend of Cecile’s. Estella Lamar has become a world famous globetrotter since Cecile saw her last, and she’s eager to speak to her after so many years apart.
But when the pair comes face to face with “Estella Lamar”, Cecile is shocked to see that the woman is only an imposter. And not only that: she, too, is dressed like Artemis:
“I have not the slightest interest in where you claim to have been or why you might want to be here,” Cecile said, “but I would very much like to know what has induced you to pose as one of the dearest friends of my youth. I knew Estella almost as well as I know myself. You look nothing like her!”
Miss Lamar—or whoever she was—blanched. Her eyes darted nervously and her lips trembled. Cecile moved closer to her and without the slightest hesitation the other woman pushed her away, flinging her roughly to the ground, and started to run.
Emily loses the imposter in the press of the ball and she and Cecile, their mutual friend Jeremy, Duke of Bainbridge, and Emily’s dashing husband Colin Hargreaves decide to head home after all of the excitement. But only moments later their evening is further interrupted when Colin—an agent for the Crown—is summoned to a murder scene.
It appears that “Estella Lamar” has been stabbed to death.
Convinced that the man dressed as Pericles is a vital clue, Emily throws herself into the investigation. It isn’t long before they learn that the victim was a failed actress, hired to impersonate the well-known world traveler, and that the man involved, a Mr. Magwitch, seems to have a penchant for emulating characters from Charles Dickens novels.
While Emily and her friends are investigating the murder of the faux Estella Lamar, we jump back more than twenty years to see things through the actual Estella’s eyes. The novel becomes two narratives: one thread following Emily while the other shows us exactly what happened to Estella before she became such an avid explorer.
The mystery that unfolds is a highly unusual one. Emily discovers that though Estella has been wandering the world for twenty years, her rather large house in London and her equally impressive mansion in Paris have both been kept open and fully staffed. Large amounts of flowers are delivered to each estate daily—and yet the heiress has declined to visit either household even once in all of those years.
“And you have been in this mode for two decades without anyone living above stairs?” To call this situation unusual would be to grossly underestimate it. Families often spent long periods of time away from their town homes—although two decades was an extreme absence—but they always had the servants close up the house when they were away. Furniture and paintings were covered, curtains drawn, and only the barest staff left on board wages to ensure nothing dire happened while their masters were away.
The more Emily and her companions dig, the more unsettling it all becomes. Every photo of Estella taken since she set off twenty years ago is blurry or at too great of a distance to be sure of her face. The letters she has always sent to newspapers and servants with details of her travels could have been forged. Perhaps the actress hired to play her at the Duchess of Devonshire’s ball was only the latest in a long line of imposters.
And back in the past Estella is facing a frightening situation: she has been kidnapped by a man desperate for her fortune. The man wants only a small portion, he explains, to pay off some very violent people he is indebted to, and he promises to return her to her home as soon as the checks clear the bank.
But perhaps things did not go so smoothly—hence the elaborate play-acting in the present…
Hot on the trail of the mysterious Magwitch, Emily’s investigation takes her from London to Paris, from the respectable cemetery of Père-Lachaise to the ominous Catacombes de Paris. As she unravels the twisted threads of the mystery, she assumes the worst.
What she finds, however, is not what she expected—but is perhaps even more upsetting.
After reading and reviewing the previous Lady Emily mystery, Behind the Shattered Glass, I back-tracked and devoured the earlier installments at a feverish pace. Tasha Alexander has created a wonderfully sharp and spunky heroine in Lady Emily, and the books are rife with the historical realism, salacious scandals, romance, and intrigue I love to find in a well-paced mystery.
That being said: The Counterfeit Heiress comes as something of a disappointment—especially given the months of waiting I had to endure before its release. The usually sparkling characters, like the vivacious Cecile and roguish Jeremy, feel flat in comparison to their previous appearances.
The dual-layered mystery, while interesting, takes an awful long time to pick up steam. And while the climactic reveal is done with the proper amount of drama and emotion, I predicted it several chapters in advance.
This is still an entertaining novel; just the thing for a fall night when you’ve a couple hours to spare. The tenacious Lady Emily, confident Cecile, foppish Jeremy, and charming Colin are still plenty endearing. I just hope that Alexander’s next offering has a bit more of the warmth, sparkle, and charm I know she can deliver.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.