Penny for Your Secrets
Note: This title is part of an ongoing series featuring the same characters, so there will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.
This third book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of mysteries featuring the intrepid Verity Kent sees our eponymous heroine and her recently returned husband Sidney investigating not one but two murders. Penny for Your Secrets takes place just a few months following the events of book two, Treacherous is the Night, and although Verity and Sidney are on more of an even keel now than they were in that book, it’s clear that things between them are still delicately balanced . Neither of them is the same person who got married in 1914 after a whirlwind courtship, and the murder mystery storyline is underscored by the continuing exploration of Verity and Sidney’s marriage as they relearn each other and get to know they people they have become. But their progress is impeded somewhat by the fact that both of them are still struggling to adapt to the world post-war as individuals; Sidney with survivor’s guilt and PTSD while he tries to find his place in the world he’s come back to; Verity because she’s without a sense of purpose for the first time in years and because she’s still keeping secrets about the missions she undertook for the Secret Service.
The book opens with Verity and Sidney attending a dinner party hosted by the Marquess and Marchioness of Rockham, at which it is quickly obvious that all is not well between the couple. Ada (the marchioness) – a friend of Verity’s – is Rockham’s second wife and was previously his mistress; they were in love when they married, but now things have soured. Rockham is rumoured to have another mistress and Ada makes no secret of her affair with Lord Ardmore, whom Verity believes holds some sort of hush-hush position within Naval Intelligence and whom Sidney pronounces “a bounder.”
After an uncomfortable dinner – at which Ada makes a very distasteful joke about shooting her husband – Verity and Sidney excuse themselves as soon as it’s polite to do so and make their way home, only to be woken in the early hours of the morning by a telephone call from an almost hysterical Ada, who tells them that Rockham is dead from a shot to the temple. The police are already on the scene and are clearly looking at Ada as their prime suspect, and while Verity believes her friend to have been guilty of poor judgment in her behaviour of late, she can’t believe her to be capable of murder, so she agrees to Ada’s request for help proving her innocence.
Just a day or so later, Verity is surprised by a visit from Irene Shaw, a former MI5 employee whom she met during the war. Irene is desperate to find out more about the death of her half-sister Esther, who was killed during what seemed to be a burglary-gone-wrong a couple of weeks earlier. But despite the fact that Esther’s room had been tossed, nothing was taken, which makes Irene suspect that perhaps the killer had an ulterior motive related to Esther’s wartime job in the censorship department of the Royal Mail.
Frustrated at the slow progress she and Sidney are making with their enquiries into Ada’s situation – some of that due to Ada herself, who, Verity senses, is not being entirely truthful – Verity agrees to look into Esther’s death, much to Ada’s annoyance; she thinks Verity should be focusing on her and not diverting her attention elsewhere.
As Verity and Sidney investigate the two murders, they start to realise that the crimes may be connected – they just have to figure out how. Their investigation draws the attention of Lord Ardmore, who is very clearly a man to be reckoned with, and it sees them travelling back to France, and then to the Isle of Wight and the estate of Max, the Earl of Ryde, Sidney’s former commanding officer and the man to whom Verity had experienced a strong attraction when she’d still believed herself to be a widow. Anna Lee Huber pulls her seemingly disparate plot threads together with great skill as Verity, Sidney – and eventually Max – uncover a complicated web of deceit and betrayal.
One of the things the author does very well in this series is to shine a light on the lives of the young people who survived the First World War, showing how their world has changed – and how, in some ways it has not – and how difficult it is for the young women who were drafted into taking on men’s roles and jobs during the war to go back to the way things were. Verity is one of those women reluctant to relinquish the greater freedom and autonomy she gained, but is also uncertain about where she goes from here. In the previous book, much of the time spent on the relationship between her and Sidney was to do with her wondering how much she should tell him about her work with the Secret Service and how much it would affect his opinion of her; in this one, there are still things she’s not telling him, but the focus shifts more to Sidney, who is obviously struggling with survivor’s guilt but refuses to talk to Verity about it and repeatedly shuts her out. The author handles this aspect of their relationship very well; Verity’s frustration and fears for her husband are palpable, but one downside to this is that I still haven’t got much of a handle on Sidney’s personality. He’s a decent man, no question, but he’s defined mostly in terms of anger and guilt, and because the stories are narrated entirely in Verity’s PoV, we’re not getting to know him in any real detail.
I also confess that I found the mystery in this book a bit harder to get into than previous ones, and didn’t really become fully engaged with it until well into the second half when things were starting to coalesce. I’m not completely sure why that was; the writing is strong, the research is meticulous and while I wasn’t as invested in Ada’s plotline as I was in Esther’s, the story is very well put together – but I didn’t warm to either Verity or Sidney in this book; they were both a little too distanced and I felt there was a fair bit of repetition in terms of the issues that are still lying between them.
With that said, Penny for Your Secrets is a solidly good read and fans of historical mysteries should definitely give the Verity Kent series a try. The books can work as standalones but I think readers will be best served by starting at the beginning with This Side of Murder.