A Brush with Shadows
At the end of As Death Draws Near, the fifth book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of historical mysteries, the recently-wed Lady Darby and her husband, private enquiry agent Sebastian Gage, were urgently summoned to England – specifically, to Gage’s family home at Langstone Manor in Dartmoor. Gage’s cousin, Alfred, heir to their grandfather, Viscount Tavistock, has gone missing, and the elderly and ailing viscount wants Gage to find him.
Book six, A Brush with Shadows, opens with Keira and Gage arriving at the Manor after an arduous journey from Ireland (where they’d solved the case of a murdered nun), and already things are tense. Gage hasn’t visited Langstone since his mother died when he was eighteen, and he had, at that time, vowed never to set foot in the place again. He hasn’t told Keira much about his childhood – he has always been rather cagey when it comes to his past, and she has had to carefully pry information out of him at various points throughout the series – but it’s clear from what he has said that his time there wasn’t happy, and there is no love lost between her husband and his cousin. But Gage is an honourable man and isn’t about to ignore this request for help, no matter that it has come from the family from which he is estranged.
Their arrival has clearly not been prepared for, and things go pretty much downhill from then on. Gage’s aunt, Lady Vanessa is openly hostile to both him and Keira, making it clear that she knows about Keira’s background (and the scandal that continues to dog her owing to her forced involvement in her late husband’s anatomical studies – see The Anatomist’s Wife) and strongly disapproves of their marriage. Her younger son, Rory is more welcoming, while the viscount continues to tyrannise the household from his sickbed. And all of them have secrets they are desperate to keep, even at the risk of prolonging the search for Alfred who, it turns out, vanished almost a fortnight earlier.
I freely admit that the big draw – for me – of this book was the opportunity to discover more about Gage’s past. He’s such a lovely hero – clever, well-liked, handsome, charming, and urbane, but there’s been an aura of mystery about him and the sense that he’s suffered some deep hurt that he is at pains to keep hidden. He has always played his cards close to his chest and at times, Keira has despaired of his ever really opening up to her, but as the series has progressed he has done so occasionally – about his experiences in Greece in the war against Turkey and confessing that his mother was murdered (poisoned) by her maid – even though he finds it incredibly difficult and has taken care to pack all his most disturbing memories away behind thickly constructed mental walls. The picture of the younger Gage that emerges here is heart-breaking, but also points strongly to the man he is to become. Forced to assume the role of protector at a young age (his father was often away at sea and his mother was unwell), young Sebastian put up with insults, lies and unpleasant pranks from his cousins and his aunt’s open disdain for both himself and his mother but kept his hurt and frustration to himself so as not to cause Emma Gage any distress. He learned early in life not to rely on anyone else, and even now, continues to display that tendency; although he has learned to trust Keira and knows she is intelligent, strong and capable of looking out for herself, he can’t help wanting to protect her and shield her from unpleasantness.
This storyline is much more engaging than the central mystery, which is actually quite weak by comparison – both with Gage’s backstory and with other mysteries in the series. Ms. Huber skilfully weaves the plotline of the missing heir in and out of the threads which reveal more about Gage’s early life at Langstone and his relationships with his relatives, but taken alone, it’s very simplistic and, at times, frustrating. The viscount wants his heir found, but deliberately withholds information from Keira and Gage; his aunt and cousin do the same, there’s talk of a curse, evil pixies who lure people to their deaths on the moor and witchcraft – which all makes for a good crop of red herrings, but there is very little actual substance to the mystery until around the last quarter of the book, when the author ups the ante with another disappearance. And when the identity of the villain was revealed, my reaction was ‘huh?’, because it comes completely out of the blue. I’m not an avid reader of mysteries, but I do enjoy them, and I like to follow the clues along with the characters, trying to work out how they fit into the big picture at the same time as they do. But here, there is no inkling at all as to who the culprit is until Keira actually sees him – and I felt cheated. There was nothing in the entire story that pointed to this person being the miscreant and if felt as though the author had pulled the name out of a hat or closed her eyes and stuck a pin into the list of possibles.
On a more positive note, Ms. Huber’s descriptions of the landscape and unpredictable weather patterns of the moor are atmospheric and evocative, and I was pleased to see Keira and Gage working together most of the time (in the last book, they were frequently separated). As I’ve said already, Gage’s backstory is engaging and well-told, and the relationship between our two protagonists continues to evolve in a positive way, as Gage is more vulnerable than we – and Keira – have ever seen him and I loved that he was fully prepared to accept her loving support.
Ultimately then, A Brush with Shadows is a bit of a mixed bag. It gets high marks for Gage’s backstory, but a middling grade for a middling mystery, and a cautious recommendation overall. Fans of the series will probably enjoy it for the interplay between the characters and progression in Keira and Gage’s relationship, but those who enjoy a bit more complexity in their historical mysteries might come away a little disappointed.