A Talent for Trickery
A Talent for Trickery is Alissa Johnson’s first new novel since 2012, and I, for one, have missed her. The books of hers I’ve read have been strongly characterised and intelligently written; she has an engaging, easy-to-read style that is laced with wit and subtle humour and the ability to develop her romances in a manner that never feels rushed or forced – and I’m happy to report that this latest book sees her in fine form.
Owen Renderwell, a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard became the focus of public attention some eight years previously by virtue of the fact that he solved a high-profile case involving a kidnapped duchess and a fortune in diamonds. As a result, Owen was elevated to a viscountcy and his two friends and colleagues received knighthoods; and now the three of them work as private investigators. An inquiry into the recent murder of a brothel owner might not normally have come their way, but for two things: the murderer left a coded letter at the scene of the crime that was clearly intended to pique Owen’s interest; and the victim had been a friend of the notorious criminal Will Walker, the man with whom Owen had secretly worked on a number of cases – including that of the missing duchess and diamonds.
Walker, an all-round blackguard, scoundrel and con-man worked with Owen for some four years before being killed attempting to rescue the Duchess of Strale. In order to protect his family – two daughters and a son – Owen arranged for them to disappear and assume new identities, but now, he has to seek them out for the first time since their father’s death, knowing that he is the last person they are likely to want to see or trust.
“They” being – specifically – Lottie, Walker’s eldest daughter and one-time accomplice. Fiercely loyal to her father, she blames Owen for his death and, more importantly, the fact that her father never received any recognition for his work on the right side of the law. Even though she knows, rationally, that keeping her father’s name out of the limelight was the safest option for her and her siblings, she can’t help feeling that Owen betrayed her and cheated her father out of any credit he may have been due for the fact that he had changed his ways and was at last walking along the straight and narrow.
Throughout the four years of their association, Owen was strongly attracted to Lottie, but never made the slightest move in her direction because he didn’t want to put her in a position where she felt she couldn’t refuse him. His attempts to communicate with her following her father’s death were unceremoniously rebuffed and he had to resign himself to never seeing her again, although in the eight years that followed, he has never been able to completely forget her.
But now he needs Lottie’s help to decipher the encoded letter that was left at the scene of the murder, together with those that were left at a number of high-profile crime-scenes in London. Initially hostile, she can’t refuse if her aid will see the murderer of her old family friend brought to justice, and an uneasy truce is struck between them.
Lottie’s resentment of Owen is deep-seated and she is furious with herself when she is forced to acknowledge that the girlish infatuation she had harboured for him has never died – and worse, that she’s as attracted to him as she ever was. She tries hard to maintain a frosty demeanour, but the more time she spends in his company, the more she remembers about old times while at the same time learning new things about the man he has become. Ms Johnson very wisely doesn’t drag out the misunderstanding between the couple, and even though they can’t completely agree, they have nonetheless come to a better understanding of the past well before the half-way point. Lottie is still keeping one devastating secret, and can’t bear the thought of losing Owen again so soon after their reconciliation. But the sudden realisation that there is a killer on their trail leaves them no time to figure out what happens next, as they are plunged into a desperate fight survival against an unknown adversary.
Anyone who reads science-fiction or suspense novels on a regular basis will know what I mean when I describe the rest of this book as a kind of “base under siege” story, which is something I don’t think I’ve come across in an historical romance before. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically a story in which the protagonists are somehow trapped in a particular location and facing a threat – known or unknown – either from the outside or within. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book; Owen and Lottie still have things to sort out between them, but don’t let that get in the way of their working together to figure out the cipher and then to keep everyone safe; and the way their relationship is transformed throughout the course of the book is incredibly well-done. The balance between suspense and romance is just about right, and the author skilfully slips seamlessly between the two.
Both protagonists are three-dimensional, flawed characters whose interactions are enlivened by humour and a lovely undercurrent of affection and attraction, even during that initial period of hostility and mistrust. They have great chemistry and I loved their flirtatious, tender and sometimes combative interactions. Owen is a gorgeous hero – an honourable man who is nonetheless prepared to make sacrifices for the woman he has loved for so long; a man of action when he has to be, and a man accustomed to command in a way that is attractive rather than arrogant. Lottie is highly intelligent and devoted to her family, but is blinded by the deep love she held for the father who used her for his own ends. The secondary characters of Owen’s colleagues and Lottie’s siblings are well-rounded, with inner lives of their own, and I’m intrigued at the prospect of Esther – whose revelations late on in the story are most unexpected – and Sir Samuel as a future couple in another book in the series.
A Talent for Trickery is the sort of book that leaves one with a smile on one’s face and a feeling of real satisfaction after it’s finished. It’s not flashy or gimmicky; it’s just a very well-told story peopled with characters whose flaws make them easy to identify with and like and I’m happy to recommend it. Welcome back, Ms Johnson – and please don’t make me wait another three years for your next book!