Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lady Ashton mysteries by Tasha Alexander

Here are reviews of the two Lady Emily Ashton mysteries by Tasha Alexander. Please note that in the review of the second book there will inevitably be at least one major spoiler for the first book.

For Emily, accepting the proposal of Philip, the Viscount Ashton, was an easy way to escape her overbearing mother, who was set on a grand society match. So when Emily's dashing husband died on safari soon after their wedding, she felt little grief. After all, she barely knew him. Now, nearly two years later, she discovers that Philip was a far different man from the one she had married so cavalierly. His journals reveal him to have been a gentleman scholar and antiquities collector who, to her surprise, was deeply in love with his wife. Emily becomes fascinated with this new image of her dead husband and she immerses herself in all things ancient and begins to study Greek.

Emily's intellectual pursuits and her desire to learn more about Philip take her to the quiet corridors of the British Museum, one of her husband's favorite places. There, amid priceless ancient statues, she uncovers a dark, dangerous secret involving stolen artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries. And to complicate matters, she's juggling two very prominent and wealthy suitors, one of whose intentions may go beyond the marrying kind. As she sets out to solve the crime, her search leads to more surprises about Philip and causes her to question the role in Victorian society to which she, as a woman, is relegated.

In my review of Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, I mentioned that just lately it has seemed as though I have been reading a lot of mysteries that seem to have similar settings and characters (i.e young women who become amateur sleuths (two of whom are recent widows) and all set in Victorian times). This was actually the first of those mysteries that I read, and yet strangely enough is the last review written. How odd!

Lady Emily Ashton had the misfortune to be married and then widowed very shortly thereafter. Her husband, Sir Philip appeared to have not formed any great emotional bond with his wife, and to be fair, the feeling was pretty much mutual as far as Lady Ashton was concerned. She barely knew her husband, other than the fact that he loved to go hunting in Africa, which is where he died. For her part, marriage meant a chance to escape from an overbearing society mother and having done her familial duty. As the daughter of an Earl, it was her responsibility to attract a suitably titled husband.

With her husband dead, Emily has been forced to basically withdraw from society whilst she undertakes her period of mourning. Inspired by the discovery of some journals belonging to her husband, instead of feeling constrained by her period of mourning, it is a period of freedom for her as she begins to learn some Greek, to know more about her dead husband and his interests, and as she begins to wonder if perhaps he had lived there would have been a chance to actually learn to love her husband.

It is this romantic hopelessness that causes Emily to become more interested in many of the beautiful antique objects that her husband surrounded himself with and for her to become a regular visitor to the British Museum. She stumbles onto a forgery plot, and soon finds herself with more excitement than she knows what to do with. As her period of mourning comes to an end and she prepares to reenter society as a widow of beauty and financial independence, Emily finds herself with not one but two admirers, both of whom were connected with her husband. It is however difficult to deal with suitors when one seems to be falling in love with your own dead husband.

This novel is a charming read about a woman who is trying to once more find her sense of self in the world of her time - a time when the social restrictions for a young woman were very strict - whilst also having to reevaluate the things that she knows about her own history. It was interesting to take a side trip or two to France where the rules were not quite so extreme.

It was also interesting to get a comparison to Emily's life by looking at the lives of her friends Ivy and Margaret, and to a lesser extent her French friend Cecile. Ivy is a newly married young woman, subject to the restrictions placed on her by her somewhat conservative husband (his shock at discovering his young wife had a taste for Emily's port collection was very amusing). Margaret is an American heiress, something of a blue stocking who doesn't really want to be part of society and therefore seen as eccentric, and then the freedom allowed to Cecile within French society.

The historical details about the life and times of a young Victorian, from customs to fashion to language were beautifully integrated into the storyline and yet Alexander still managed to provide us with a very intriguing mystery about a compelling female amateur sleuth.

London's social season is in full swing, and the Victorian aristocracy can't stop whispering about a certain gentleman who claims to be the direct descendant of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But he's not the only topic of wagging tongues. Drawing rooms, boudoirs, and ballrooms are abuzz with the latest news of an audacious cat burglar who has been making off with precious items that once belonged to the ill-fated queen.

Light gossip turns serious when the owner of one of the pilfered treasures is found murdered, and the mysterious thief develops a twisted obsession with Emily. But the strong-minded and fiercely independent Emily will not be shaken. It will take all of her considerable wit and perseverance to unmask her stalker and ferret out the murderer, even as a brewing scandal threatens both her reputation and her romance with her late husband's best friend, the dashing Colin Hargreaves.

A Poisoned Season
is a delicious blend of sparkling romance, heart-pounding suspense, and rich historical detail that only Tasha Alexander could create.
Normally I try to say a little bit about the novel before I start talking about my reactions to it, but I am going to do the opposite this time, and start with saying what a great premise this novel has!

Marie Antoinette may have died during the French Revolution roughly a hundred years on, but her influence lives on. There have been a spate of robberies in London, targeting only those items that were previously owned by the late French queen - whether they be letters, jewels or other items. Surely it can be no coincidence that society is also buzzing about the arrival in their midst of Mr Charles Berry, who claims to be a direct descendant of the Dauphin, and therefore legitimately entitled to be the King of France. With the French republic a little shaky, Mr Berry is garnering as much support as he can from the highest echelons of British society, including to find a suitable bride before returning to France to claim his rightful place on the throne.

Lady Emily Ashton becomes involved in the case when her house guest has her earrings stolen, and yet nothing else of value in her home was taken during the robbery. When another robbery victim is encouraged to go the police, and then not long after is found dead, Lady Ashton can't bear to think that she may have hurried his death along by involving him. It turns out that the dead man has secrets that are waiting to be told after his death, and Emily is the one to try and uncover those secrets.

Along the way, some letters that were written by Marie Antoinette come into her possession, and she must try to decipher the code to find out exactly what did happen a hundred years before, and how that is affecting the current case that she is working on.

What I did love in this story was the relationship between Emily and Colin. There is no condescension towards Emily on Colin's part. He has belief in her abilities, and encourages her to be self sufficient, and yet is available if she needs him...and she does!

If you are looking for a hot and heavy romance between the two of these characters, then you will be disappointed, as the book is filled only with glances, the briefest of touches, and kisses on gloved hands. Colin Hargreaves wishes for Emily to marry him but he understands that Emily is an independent woman now, and that he therefore wishes for her to want to marry him on her own, not just because society dictates that she must marry again and soon. When even the Queen gets involved in her romantic affairs, that is a lot of pressure! The fact that Colin is determined to have a very proper courtship with Emily and therefore there are only the briefest moments between them is paramount in building up a palpable emotional tension within the novel.

What I wasn't so keen on was the number of other suitors that are drawn to Emily. We have a gentleman with an improper offer and a secret admirer who may or may not be dangerous to her and whose motives are somewhat twisted throughout the novel. In addition, society is all aghast that not only does Emily seem to have Colin Hargreaves courting her, she also seems to be having an affair with one of her childhood friends who is supposed to have an attachment to Emily's friend Margaret.

It is Emily's somewhat unusual intellectual habits as well as her romantic entanglements that see her on the very edge of ruination in the eyes of society. Between trying to stop her reputation from being irrevocably damaged, convincing several members of the gentry to hand over some invaluable ancient treasures to the British Museum, discover who the perpetrator(s) of several crimes were and to determine who her secret admirer really is, Emily is a very busy lady!

This was another very enjoyable novel by this author. The next novel, A Fatal Waltz comes out in June and I will definitely be trying to get hold of it as close to release date as possible.


  1. I read the first one last year~ a perfectly enjoyable bit of historical mystery fluff! Alexander handled love/mystery/history with a deft hand and a light heart.

    Looking forward to A Poisoned Season!

  2. I need to get my hands on A Poisoned Season -- it sounds good!

  3. Great reviews Marg. I added And Only One to Deceive to my TBR when you recommended it to me on my blog. It was nice to see your review of it.

  4. Thanks for the heads up! I will check out Lady Ashton now based on your opinion. I do so love Lady Julia Grey as well! Victorian England is grand and I think the allure is that ladies were more careful with their reputations. Society was definitely less garish back then.

  5. I really enjoyed these two and can't wait to get ahold of the third one as well!