A Terrible Beauty (Lady Emily)
by Tasha Alexander
Cover Artist: Parthenon by Anastasios71 / Shutterstock;
Woman by Malgorzata Maj / Arcangel;
Gentleman by Everett Collection / Shutterstock
Review by Steven Kuehn
Minotaur Books Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781250130181
Date: 11 July 2017 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
[NOTE: This review is of the hardcover edition and originally ran in our January 2017 issue.]
In Victorian England, perhaps more than in any other era, the mourning of a husband was a substantial event, with specific rules placed upon the widow. None of these rules, to the best of my knowledge, ever dealt with how to proceed when the husband returns from the dead!
As long-time readers of the series know, Lady Emily chaffed at the restrictions placed upon her by society following the death of her husband, Lord Philip Ashton, who perished on a hunting trip in Africa. Emily's rebellious and inquisitive nature served her well as she delved into the secrets surrounding Philip's demise, and later with other mysteries in the company of the dashing Colin Hargreaves, agent for the British Crown, whom she later wed.
In A Terrible Beauty, Lady Emily has organized a holiday in Greece, one of her favorite places, to cheer up her childhood friend Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge, following the loss of his fiancÚ, American heiress Amity Wells. Colin and Emily's close friend Margaret Michaels round out the group. Upon arrival at her island villa in Greece, the revelry of the group is shattered when the long-dead Philip returns!
Can this truly be Philip Ashton? Over a decade has passed, but his appearance and knowledge of his past history with both Emily and Colin are unmistakable. Philip's arrival devastates Emily and Colin, and the tension felt throughout the villa is palpable.
Complicating matters further, Philip, now working as an archaeologist, reveals that he has been hounded for years by an illegal antiquities dealer who believes Philip is in possession of a portion of Achilles' helmet. Philip relates how the priceless artifact was stolen from him soon after its discovery, but his life and the safety of those around him are still at risk. Falling back on her cunning and instincts, it is up to Lady Emily to stop the artifact thieves while simultaneously solving the enigma of her long-lost first husband's return.
There is good character development in A Terrible Beauty, particularly in the relationship between Emily and Colin. The secondary characters play limited roles in this book, which is something I missed from the previous novels in this series. The intertwined mysteries of Philip Ashton's return and the Achilles' helmet work well, but it is less a matter of Lady Emily solving the mysteries as discovering the truth. This is perhaps a minor quibble but something slightly different from earlier books in the series.
Ms. Alexander alternates chapters throughout the book, with Emily's recollection of the current events interspersed with those of Philip's activities since his apparent death. This technique works well and you can feel the rising tension as the two paths converge in the present. As readers of this series have come to expect, the author expertly interweaves descriptions of people, places, and settings to create detailed surroundings that bring her novels to life. The island locals and Mrs. Katevatis, the housekeeper, provide a colorful backdrop. Having a passing familiarity with late nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological field investigations, I can confirm that Tasha Alexander's descriptions of the site excavations are spot on. A Terrible Beauty is an excellent continuation of the Lady Emily Mystery series, and I look forward to Ms. Alexander's next entry. With a strong female lead and well-developed historical mysteries, this novel and the books in this series are a worthy addition to any mystery library.