Desert Isle Keeper
A Conspiracy in Belgravia
Reviewing mysteries is always a challenge as anyone who’s tried it will know. And with one of this calibre, it’s even more difficult, because I want to tell you just how GOOD this book is, but I can’t tell you too much for fear of giving too much away and spoiling your enjoyment. I could just say a) “Sherry Thomas is a genius – go buy this book!”, or b) “Don’t waste time here – go buy this book!”, but that isn’t much of a review, so I will attempt – somehow – to do justice to this terrific story and author… and will no doubt fail miserably, at which juncture you should simply heed the advice given in points a) and b).
Note: I think it would be possible to enjoy this as a standalone, but I really would recommend reading A Study in Scarlet Women first. There are spoilers for that book in this review.
A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up on the day after the events that concluded the previous book. Charlotte Holmes, ably assisted by her closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton, and Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard, has solved the Sackville murder case and learned of the existence of an infamous criminal mastermind by the name of Moriarty. In addition, Charlotte worked out that that Lord Ingram – Ash to his friends – had pulled strings behind the scenes in order to make sure she wasn’t left alone on the streets after she ran from her father’s house, and orchestrated her meeting with the army widow and former actress with whom Charlotte now resides, Mrs. John Watson. Charlotte doesn’t like being beholden to Ash, especially not as their friendship, while generally strong, has been sometimes strained since his ill-advised marriage six years earlier.
Charlotte and Mrs. Watson have formed a working partnership as investigators, using the identity of Sherlock Holmes as a front for their operation. Holmes suffers from a debilitating illness, so clients meet with his ‘sister’ – Charlotte – while the detective listens to the conversation from the next room. It’s with some surprise that Charlotte identifies their latest prospective client, Mrs. Finch, as Lady Ingram, Ash’s wife. Mrs Watson is concerned about accepting the lady as a client given their friendship with her husband, but Charlotte believes her need must be very pressing if it has driven her to seek Holmes’ help, and agrees to the meeting – although as Charlotte cannot afford to be recognised, the part of Sherlock’s sister will be taken by Mrs. Watson’s niece, Penelope Redmayne. ‘Mrs. Finch’ explains that she is seeking information regarding the man she fell in love with before she married Lord Ingram, a young man deemed unsuitable by her parents, whose financial situation demanded she marry someone wealthy. While she and her erstwhile love agreed not to meet or write to each other once she was married, they planned a yearly assignation – on the Sunday before his birthday, they would both take a walk past the Albert Memorial at 3 pm, so they could each see that the other was alive and well. This year, however, her sweetheart did not keep the appointment, and she wants Sherlock Holmes to find out why. Penelope asks Lady Ingram for as many details as she can provide, but when she identifies the man in question as Myron Finch, Charlotte is stunned. Myron Finch is her illegitimate half-brother.
While Charlotte and Mrs. Watson set about looking into the disappearance of Mr. Finch, Charlotte is also mulling over the proposal of marriage she has received – the second one, in fact – from Lord Bancroft Ashburton, Lord Ingram’s older brother. Charlotte is fully cognizant of the benefits marriage to him would bring. It would rehabilitate her – to an extent – in the eyes of society and would soften her father’s stance towards her; she could care for her sister, Bernadette (who has some sort of mental disability) and could openly spend time with her other sister, Livia and generally return to the life to which she had been born. But even though Bancroft recognises and respects Charlotte’s keen intellect, he clearly expects her to discontinue her investigations as Sherlock Holmes, and she’s not sure that’s something she’s willing to give up.
As an inducement, Bancroft gifts Charlotte with a set of puzzles, which includes a message encoded using a Vignère cipher, a fiendishly difficult code that takes Charlotte some days to decipher. Once decoded, the message leads her to an address in Hounslow, North West of London, where she and Lord Ingram unexpectedly encounter Inspector Treadles. A man has been murdered – and appears to have named his killer before he died. Could he perhaps be the missing Mr. Finch? Or could he somehow be tied to Finch’s disappearance? Or, worse still, are Finch and the murder victim somehow tied to the mysterious Moriarty, a name which seems to inspire fear in those who know it, and someone of whom even the unflappable Bancroft seems to be wary?
Well… I’m not saying. As is clear, though, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I admit that I sometimes had to refer to the numerous highlights I’d made on my Kindle to refresh my memory about something, but for the most part, the story rattles along famously as Sherry Thomas skillfully pulls the disparate mystery threads together and then unravels them, bringing events to a climax I most certainly didn’t see coming. Just as impressive as her plotting is the way in which she continues to explore and develop her characters and the relationships between them, building on what we know of them from the previous book and rounding them out even more. We don’t see as much of Treadles in this story, but it’s clear that he’s been upset by the discovery of the deceit practiced by his good friend Lord Ingram (over Holmes’ true identity) and isn’t sure what to make of Charlotte any longer. There’s a romance in the offing for Livia, who is charmed by a mysterious young man who seems to see and appreciate her for who she is and doesn’t talk down to her or dismiss her interests; and we get to know a little more of the circumstances which led to Ash’s marriage to a society beauty he later learned had married him only for his money.
Anyone with any knowledge of this author’s work will already know that her work is highly creative and imaginative; she fashions strong, well-developed and engaging characters, crafts complex interweaving plots, and her historical romances are among the best in the genre. I should, however, warn anyone hoping for romantic developments between Charlotte and Ash that things between them don’t progress a great deal (if at all). The author sheds more light on Ash’s feelings towards Charlotte, showing he knows her better than anyone (and there’s a nice touch at the end where Charlotte both acknowledges this and admits she’s glad it’s Ash who knows her so well) and Charlotte… well, she doesn’t necessarily wish Ash had married her, she would just prefer he hadn’t married at all. She’s someone who relies on observation and logic and doesn’t have room for sentiment; yet in the face of all the logical reasons she should marry Bancroft, a small part of her can’t ignore the fact that she doesn’t find him attractive while his brother… is a different matter entirely.
There’s so much more to A Conspiracy in Belgravia than I can possibly say here. The characters, the relationships, the mystery … all are richly detailed and superbly constructed, making this a truly compelling, un-put-downable read. I stand by my original points a) and b). Just go and buy it.