After her pleasant debut chronicling England's most elusive spy (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, 2005), Willig is back with a second installment, this time featuring the Black Tulip, France's deadliest secret agent.
Harvard graduate student Eloise Kelly is searching the archives in hopes of learning more about the Pink Carnation for her much delayed dissertation. Instead, she finds the Napoleonic-era correspondence between 20-year-old Lady Henrietta Selwick and the spy, which reveals that after a two-year silence, France's Black Tulip is planning murder. Unfortunately, no one knows the Black Tulip's identity. Lady Henrietta, who longs to be a spy, decides to unmask the secret agent before he or she strikes. Unbeknownst to Henrietta, the war office has asked Miles Dorrington, Henrietta's best friend and soon-to-be-beau, to solve the case. Is Lord Vaughn, the well known rake who favors masquerade balls, the Black Tulip? Or is it the beautiful Marquise de Montval, she of the immodest necklines? Or could it be the unlikely “Turnip” Fitzhugh, the foppish dandy? Willig's delightful plot takes Lady Henrietta to spy school, to the brink of a ruined reputation and on to romantic happiness. It's clear that alone or together, Henrietta and Miles are a force to be reckoned with. As for Eloise, the protagonist who sets off the novel within a novel, she is so little used that when she does appear, she seems to interrupt the espionage adventure. Perhaps in the third installment, the author will devote more time to this deserving 21st-century archivist.
With such appealing characters and plots, one fears that Willig, currently a Harvard Law student and History Ph.D. candidate, will never get those degrees.