A Gift for Guile
A Gift for Guile is the second book in Alissa Johnson’s Thief Takers series set in Victorian England. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read book one (A Talent for Trickery), as there is plenty here to flesh out the backstories of the central characters, but I think it offers some useful insight into the heroine’s past and character, and nicely sets up the relationship between the two protagonists – Esther Walker-Bales and Sir Samuel Brass – as one of mutual antagonism albeit with a strong undercurrent of attraction to which neither would admit over their dead bodies.
Esther is the younger daughter of the late William Walker, a master thief and con-man who, in the years before his death had turned to helping the police to solve crimes, applying his particular talent for deciphering the codes used by London’s criminal gangs. His eldest daughter, Lottie, was relieved that her father was at last on the straight and narrow, while Esther was fully aware that he was continuing his criminal activities in secret as she usually aided and abetted his crimes.
In the previous book, we learned that the Walker family has been living quietly in the country under an assumed name because there are still enemies of Will’s out there with scores to settle. So it’s not a particularly good idea for any of them to return to their old stamping ground of London – which is why Sir Samuel Brass, one of the famous trio of “Thief Takers” (the other two being Owen, Viscount Renderwell and Sir Gabriel Arkwright) is so annoyed when he discovers that Esther has done just that; travelled to London and arranged a meeting at Paddington station with an unknown man who has promised to give her some important information about her past.
Samuel tells himself that his concern for Esther is simply the result of his being asked to keep an eye on her while her sister and Renderwell are on their honeymoon in Scotland. It’s obvious to the reader that there is more to it than that, even though Samuel and Esther are convinced of the other’s dislike and continue to treat each other with suspicion. Granted, in Samuel’s case, the suspicion is, perhaps, deserved – he knows Esther is a liar and a thief – yet every so often, he catches a glimpse of the real Esther, a remarkable woman with a great capacity for kindness and generosity, and is frustrated by the way she so often retreats to the Walker customs of trickery and guile.
Knowing that Samuel is nothing if not tenacious, Esther realises that she can use his presence to her advantage. His skills as an investigator are considerable and the fact that he is rather well-known means that he can open doors that may be closed to her. He is also one of the very few people in her life she knows she can trust (as far as she trusts anybody) and agreeing to let him help her – which she knows he will insist upon – is going to make her life a lot easier and, she has to admit, make her feel a lot safer.
While there is a mystery to be solved and danger lurks around almost every corner for Esther, this is very much a character-driven story in which the romance evolves naturally as the principals learn more about each other and gradually acknowledge the attraction that has been bubbling between them for quite some time. There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them as well as real depth to their emotional connection.
Esther is tough, clever and resourceful, handy with a blade, trained by her father to be a liar and a master thief. Yet deep down, she admits that her willingness to work with Will was born of her desire to have him notice her and to gain his affection, and can’t help feeling ashamed for it. Even though he knew she was not his child, Will accepted her and brought her up as his own, but Esther always felt herself to be lacking in some way and has spent most of her life believing she needed to be someone other than herself in order to gain acceptance and approval. Her attraction to Samuel, a decent, honest man, who is sworn to uphold the law unnerves her, partly because she has never felt anything like it before, but mostly because he knows her well enough to know that she is so much less than he deserves.
Samuel is a big, grumpy (adorable) bear of a man who finds it safer to say as little as possible for fear of saying the wrong thing. Persistent, keenly intelligent and deeply honourable, he is more than able to hold his own with Esther, recognising her need to take an active part in the search for the truth of her past even as he is trying to reconcile that with his need to keep her safe. Given Esther’s determination to make her own choices and her own mistakes, that isn’t always easy – and with both of them being strong-willed and stubborn people, they clash often and sometimes unpleasantly. Yet there’s always the sense that they argue because they care, and the author makes it easy to understand and sympathise with both their perspectives.
This could so easily have turned into one of those books where the overprotective hero and the feisty heroine go at each other hammer and tongs, she forever getting herself into trouble, and he forever berating her about it – but fortunately, it doesn’t go there. Yes, Samuel is protective and yes Esther is independent and spirited, but – and this is so refreshing – they argue and they talk through their differences and they *gasp* learn to compromise. Esther is never going to be one to sit back and let others fight her battles for her, and Samuel is never going to be happy about that – but there’s a real sense here that these are two people whose actions and words are true to who they are inside. They end the book as essentially the same people they started as, but they’ve both learned and experienced personal growth through their association with and love for each other.
There is something extremely engaging about Ms. Johnson’s writing style, which is intelligent, secure and evocative without being overly wordy. The characterisation is excellent all round, and the descriptions of the seedier parts of London – Bethnal Green, Spitalfields, and the East End Rookeries – are well done, and put the reader quite firmly in those dank, smelly streets. My one criticism – and the reason I’ve not rated the book more highly – is that Esther’s conviction that Samuel can’t want “the real her” because “that woman” is such a horrible person – goes on for too long. But even taking that into account, A Gift for Guile is a terrific read; well-written, insightful and witty with an appealing central couple whose differences are complementary rather than divisive. More, please, Ms. Johnson!