Treacherous is the Night
Treacherous is the Night is the second book in Anna Lee Huber’s latest series of post-WW1 historical mysteries featuring former secret service agent Verity Kent. The events of this story unfold just a few weeks after those of the previous book, This Side of Murder, and if you’ve not read that, look away now, because there is a massive spoiler for the twist in that story in the next paragraph of this review.
For fifteen months, Verity believed herself to be a widow, the husband she’d married on the eve of the war having been killed in action in 1918. But during her investigation into the murders of some of Sidney’s former comrades, she made a game-changing discovery; namely that Sidney wasn’t dead at all, but had allowed everyone to believe him to be while he pursued an investigation of his own to uncover the identity of the traitor among the officers of his battalion.
After Sidney finally revealed the truth, Verity was – and still is – is a mass of conflicting emotions; relief that he isn’t dead; fury that he’d allowed her to mourn for so many months; guilt at some of things she’d kept from him during their brief reunions during the war –and their relationship is still in a state of flux when we rejoin them at the beginning of Treacherous is the Night. They have decided to work at their marriage to see if they can make a go of it, but it’s not going to be easy for either of them.
The story opens when Verity’s good friend and former War Office colleague, Daphne Merrick, asks Verity to attend a séance with her. Spiritualism saw a huge increase in popularity after the First World War as devastated relatives and friends of the fallen sought comfort in the idea of being able to speak to their loved ones one last time. Verity is sceptical of the whole thing – even more so after a cruel trick that was played on her at the house party she attended in the previous book – but she knows Daphne is desperate to contact her brother, Gil, who lost his life in the early days of the war, and reluctantly agrees to accompany Daphne to the session at Madame Zozza’s.
When they arrive, Verity is surprised to see Max Westfield, the Earl of Ryde also in attendance. They exchange friendly greetings during which Verity recalls their unexplored – interrupted – burgeoning attraction, and then Max goes on to explain that he has accompanied his aunt, Lady Swaffham to the séance. When the proceedings get underway, things go mostly as Verity had expected – until the medium greets Verity – “ma compatriote, where are you?”- and tells her that she is the spirit of Emilie, a spy and courier with whom Verity had worked on several occasions on her various missions into France and Belgium during the war.
Verity is flabbergasted and furious at the medium’s audacity at using both Emilie and her own past as part of a cheap trick, but is determined to find out exactly why the woman should have pretended to channel Emilie in order to deliver a cryptic message – “Beware the man hiding behind the mask.” But Madame Zozza’s assistant whisks her away before Verity can approach her, so Verity determines to pay the woman a visit the following morning to find out what she knows. But that proves impossible; she and Sidney arrive in time to witness her house going up in flames, and learn that Madame Zozza perished in the fire.
There’s nothing for it now but for Verity to look into the matter herself – and she can’t deny that she’s been looking for a way to avoid having to think too hard about the state of her marriage and the ways in which both she and Sidney have become different people – people who might no longer be capable of sustaining a relationship. She needs to find Emilie and answers to the numerous questions the medium’s ‘summoning’ has posed, and in order to do that, she must return to Flanders and track down the members of La Dame Blanche, the network of intelligence gatherers and couriers of which Emilie was a member.
Ms. Huber very skilfully balances the novel’s plot – the uncovering of a deadly scheme for revenge as Verity and Sidney search for Emilie – with the gradual peeling away of the various layers of self-protection that Verity and Sidney have erected around their emotions and the exploration and development of their relationship . They’re different people now, they’ve experienced hardship, danger and the horrors of war in different ways, and they’re cagy and reluctant to reveal the extent of their sorrow, anger, doubt and broken-ness to one another. Verity is keeping a particularly guilty secret (which has been alluded to before) and is also unsure of how her husband will react when he learns the true extent of her work as an agent for the secret service. Will he be appalled that his little wife wasn’t home sitting quietly by the fire knitting socks? Will he ever be able to accept that she’s no longer the starry-eyed young woman he married?
Because the story is told through Verity’s eyes, we never get inside Sidney’s head, but Ms. Huber does a pretty good job of showing readers his feelings and reactions through his dialogue and what Verity observes of his facial expressions and body language. We see him coming to understand, appreciate and admire the determined, independent woman Verity has become, and experience his gradually reawakening trust as he allows himself to reveal more of his own fears and insecurities just as Verity reveals hers. Their internal struggles feel very real, and their rapprochement is gradual and not always easy, but it’s superbly done and I became fully invested in their relationship and was rooting for them long before the end.
If you’ve read This Side of Murder, you may be wondering about Max, who was clearly set up as a potential love interest for Verity in that story – which obviously couldn’t go anywhere once Sidney was revealed to be alive after all. Max makes a couple of brief appearances in this story, and has an important role to play in the finale; there is still a frisson of attraction between him and Verity, and Sidney is obviously jealous of their friendship, but with Verity’s commitment to making her marriage work, the attempt to create some sort of uncertainty falls flat, and I’m not quite sure why it was included.
Ms. Huber’s eye for historical detail is excellent, and she makes some shrewd social observations with a light touch, about the about the glamourisation of war, the treatment of its veterans and how the women who had taken men’s roles during it were suddenly expected to go back into their ‘womanly’ boxes and act as if they’d never had that taste of independence and freedom.
Treacherous is the Night is entertaining, well-researched and well-written, and I enjoyed it very much. I was as caught up in the exploration of the Kents’ troubled marriage as I was intrigued by the mystery plot, and would definitely encourage fans of well-written historical mysteries to consider giving this series a try.