Desert Isle Keeper
As Death Draws Near
In the latest instalment of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of historical mysteries, Keira and Gage’s honeymoon is cut short as they are summoned to Rathfarnham Abbey in Ireland to investigate the mysterious death of a nun. What they expect to be a straightforward investigation proves anything but as they are forced to deal with the complicated and fraught socio-political realities of 19th century Ireland. Deftly handled and well plotted, with gorgeous prose and a demonstrated grasp on a complex history, As Death Draws Near is a sumptuous and suspenseful escape into another time.
I am new to this author and am absolutely delighted to have discovered another series to lose myself in. While I’m sure the story would be richer for me if I had prior relationship to the characters, especially Keira, I never felt lost or overwhelmed. Ms. Huber knows these characters and treats them as living and breathing people, but balances that with the knowledge that many of us may be strangers to them.
What very well may be overwhelming to some people is the historical setting for this book. For anyone not familiar with Irish history and the various rebellions and stagnated revolutions that pepper it, many of the driving factors of this story may come as a bit of a shock. I happen to be very conversant in the historical relationship between Great Britain and Ireland as it’s part of my job to be so. So while I think Ms. Huber clearly explains everything and doesn’t leave any gaps in the context of why this nun would be killed and why the locals won’t cooperate with anyone with an English accent, I admit to not being an outsider to the conversation.
The upside is that if anyone enjoys learning wrapped up with their romances, this book is perfect. The early 19th century on the island saw the birth of many of the groups and movements which will ultimately lead to the partition of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1920, and Ms. Huber deals with a lot of them here. The tension brought by the Tithe Tax, the clashes between Orangemen and Ribbonmen, the seething frustration which is palpable from the Irish citizens and the fear felt by many of the English living in Ireland; all are handled respectfully and well.
I am so hesitant to go into too much detail about the plot because how it’s unpacked deserves to be experienced rather than explained, but here’s the basics. While on their honeymoon, Kiera and Gage get a letter from his father ordering them to head immediately to Ireland to investigate the death of a nun at an abbey south of Dublin. They’re both a bit bewildered and more than a little frustrated, but dutifully head off anyway. Their interest is piqued when it’s revealed that the nun is a relation of the Duke of Wellington.
So how does a cousin of the Duke of Wellington, who everyone knows is a member of the Church of England and whose family is prominent and powerful, have a cousin who is dedicated enough to the Catholic Church to become a nun? And how does that nun, or any nun for that matter, get themselves murdered outside the abbey walls? And then what is going on when a second nun ends up dead? So many questions! And the good news for all readers is that they’re good answers, too.
Along the way, Kiera gets an education in class differences, prejudice, and how her homeland is viewed by those it has colonized. She’s an early prototype feminist character, who feels constantly frustrated by the social limitations of her gender, but still abides by them and works within them. A lot of her education about bodies and autopsies and murder and crime came from her late husband (The Anatomist’s Wife) and she still struggles with shame, as those around her appear uncomfortable with a lady having her level of knowledge. Gage clearly empowers her to use her expertise for good, but I feel like so much of her internal monologue is this: “I shouldn’t know this and I’m still not sure how I feel about knowing this but I can help here by knowing all of this and ughhhhhhh”. Her journey towards being comfortable in her own skin, despite her culture telling her not to be, is a fascinating one.
I inhaled this book, becoming annoyed whenever someone needed my attention elsewhere. I was completely enthralled and caught up in the mystery. The prose is gorgeous and I look forward to heading back to the beginning of this series and enjoying more time with Lady Darby and her compatriots.