It’s 1787, and adventurous Anne Cartier, visiting her grandfather in Hempstead, anxiously counts the days until she can return to Paris and her beloved, Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin (Mute Witness, 2001). The duo plans to wed there the following year. But Anne, a teacher of the deaf, receives a heartfelt plea from nearby Bath, prompting her to postpone the reunion. Her mentor, Mr. Braidwood, asks her to fill in for a few weeks as tutor to frail, deaf Charlie Rogers, 11, whose previous tutor died after a suspicious fall down a staircase. When Anne arrives at the Rogers estate, she learns that Mary Campbell’s death is only one of several scandalous matters keeping the household gossip mill spinning. Young Charlie looks less like his father Sir Harry than like Captain Fitzroy, a rugged family friend. Sir Harry’s relationship with his black slave Jeff is abusive one minute and strangely intimate the next. Anne is unsettled to find peepholes in the eyes of the portraits in her room—a room previously occupied by Mary Campbell—and wonders whether the peeping Tom might also be a killer, especially as the Rogerses’ inner circle includes an array of secretive likely suspects. Coincidentally, Saint-Martin is delving into the Rogers family skeletons as well. His goddaughter Sylvie was raped by Captain Fitzroy, who fled France for England and presumed safety. But Saint-Martin has vowed to destroy him.
O’Brien’s careful, somber, measured prose and meticulous detail can’t overcome an avalanche of clichés, or a plot so overstuffed it borders on kitsch.