Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Lady Dunbridge #4
Published by Forge Books on November 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Philomena Amesbury, expatriate Countess of Dunbridge, is bored. Coney Island in the sweltering summer of 1908 offers no shortage of diversions for a young woman of means, but sea bathing, horse racing, and even amusement parks can’t hold a candle to uncovering dastardly plots and chasing villains. Lady Dunbridge hadn’t had a big challenge in months.
Fate obliges when Phil is called upon to host a dinner party in honor of a visiting Austrian psychologist whose revolutionary theories may be of interest to the War Department, not to mention various foreign powers, and who may have already survived one attempt on his life. The guest list includes a wealthy industrialist, various rival scientists and academics, a party hypnotist, a flamboyant party-crasher, and a damaged beauty whose cloudy psyche is lost in a world of its own. Before the night is out, one of the guests is dead with a bullet between the eyes and Phil finds herself with another mystery on her hands, even if it’s unclear who exactly the intended victim was meant to be.
Worse yet, the police’s prime suspect is a mystery man who Phil happens to be rather intimately acquainted with. Now it’s up to Lady Dunbridge, with the invaluable assistance of her intrepid butler and lady’s maid, to find the real culprit before the police nab the wrong one . . .
If someone threw Phryne Fisher and Mary Russell into the proverbial blender, they’d get someone like Lady Philomena Dunbridge, the protagonist/more-or-less amateur detective of this series. (The publisher originally referred to the series as Miss Fisher meeting Downton Abbey, but the Downton Abbey reference is starting to fall by the wayside – which is a good thing as it was never terribly apropos and now isn’t at all.)
Splitting the differences between Phryne and Mary Russell works better, especially considering the number of times that Phil and her inner circle refer to Mary’s husband, Sherlock Holmes. (If this intrigues you the series starts with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and it’s marvelous)
But the blend applies in other ways as well. Russell is based in England and Phryne in Australia, with Phil sitting squarely in the middle, in Gilded Age New York City. Although, like all good detectives, Phil is an outsider looking in on her adopted homeland.
It’s Phryne’s sensibilities, however, that ring truest for Phil – and the similarity of names is probably not a coincidence – in spite of the two decades between them. Phryne’s stories are set in the late 1920s, while Phil’s are in the early 1900s – in spite of some of the plot of the second book, Tell Me No Lies, seemingly lifted straight out of the later period.
I started to say that unlike the earlier books in the series, Phil doesn’t have much of a connection to either the murder victim or the accused killer, upon further reflection that isn’t strictly true. Although no one ever gets quite so far as to catch, let alone arrest, Phil’s occasional lover and sometime colleague, the mysterious Mr. X.
Rather, Phil just happens to be in the midst of doing the polite thing, hosting a dinner party for a friend, when one of the guests is murdered right before her eyes. Not even the guest that her host, officially part of the U.S. War Department and unofficially somewhere high in its ranks, was concerned would be murdered.
And that’s only the first piece of misdirection amid the tastiest red herrings served with just the right amount of mystery and sauce.
Escape Rating A-: The story in A Secret Never Told mixes two fascinating premises that initially don’t seem like they belong together. The opening dinner – and opening salvo in the mystery – consisted of a group of psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts and charlatans who were students together over a decade before. At that time, they were all scrambling for a place in a profession that had just begun moving from hypnotism as a parlor trick to studies of the mind becoming a respected scientific practice. A mad scramble that is still spinning out consequences at that tense dinner table.
And on the other hand, much of the action takes place in and around turn-of-the-century Coney Island. A place where the study of the human mind was dedicated to the best way to separate a mark from his or her money. (The portrait of Coney Island in this heyday is one of the highlights of the book.)
A man was threatened. A woman is dead. Does the case relate to his theories about how to create supersoldiers through exploiting Pavlovian responses? Or did she hold a secret dating back to their college days? It’s up to Phil and her friends to figure out not just whodunnit but what was done and why, in spite of stonewalling on the part of both the government AND the NYPD in the person of the handsome Detective Sergeant John Atkins.
I’m loving this series because of the personality of Phil, otherwise known as Lady Dunbridge. While the story is not in the first person, it very much follows Phil, her actions, her reactions, and her internal monologue. And Phil and Phryne Fisher read like sisters under the skin, from their wry observations of the social niceties and the hollowness that underlies them to their attitudes about men and sex and not letting their romantic passions overcome their common sense or their intellectual pursuits.
Considering the way that her government colleague and her detective sergeant try to keep both Phil and each other at bay and in the dark in order to be able to put their own spin on whatever the truth of the case turns out to be, Phil’s attitude seems more than fair.
I really enjoyed the first two books in this series, Ask Me No Questions and Tell Me No Lies, so I was definitely up for this fourth book in the series. (I have the third book, A Resolution at Midnight, but it seems to have fallen into the black hole of “so many books, so little time.” I clearly need to rescue it and move it up the towering TBR pile!)
Nothing about this story felt like an ending for the series, so I have high hopes that Lady Dunbridge will return, hopefully this time next year. In the meantime, I’ll have to dig out my copy of A Resolution at Midnight and catch up with Lady Dunbridge’s adventures!
~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~