Intrigues large and small abound in this debut historical novel set in a late 19th-century Florida boardinghouse.
Widowed Emma Wakefield, the proprietress of a boardinghouse, receives some deeply upsetting news. Her cousin Andrew Langley, a Secret Service agent investigating a counterfeiting ring in Atlanta, has been found dead; he was headed to their home in St. Augustine. Emma is devastated, as is Andrew’s fiancee, Clarissa. But when a textile salesman named Samuel Thompson arrives at Wakefield House claiming to be an old friend of Andrew’s, Emma’s suspicions are aroused. He doesn’t have any cloth samples with him; he sweeps Clarissa off her feet by taking her sailing; and Emma finds a bag of Andrew’s belongings in Samuel’s room that he glibly passes off as his own. And stranger still, after Samuel tells the women a tragic story about his dead wife, Rebecca, a Rebecca Thompson shows up in St. Augustine, imperiously demanding to see her husband. But as a businesswoman, Emma has her own troubles—a boarder’s jewelry and scarves vanish; her accounting of Wakefield House’s finances doesn’t quite add up; and her serving maid Henny develops a strange infatuation with Samuel. Through this tangled web of duplicity, Emma must navigate the poorer, seedier side of St. Augustine, facing unexplained deaths, gambling, and drunkenness to figure out why Andrew died and what’s going on in Wakefield House. Suzanne leads readers through her complex, diverting plot at a quick clip, telling her tale through the eyes of multiple characters, often when they’re doing something illicit. The technique adds drama, to be sure, but it also detracts from the fun of a whodunit because the reader knows exactly who did it. While Emma is a fully imagined protagonist—she’s poised and confident, treating her serving staff as equals—the other characters are noticeably flatter. The ones doing the titular deceiving are drunks, poisoners, and thieves without a single redeeming quality; the destitute children are too waifish and innocent. And one wishes the author would lavish more details on the fascinating, underappreciated time and place she sets her entertaining story, beyond the clumps of palmetto trees and gopher turtle stew that add subtle color.
Quick pacing and a satisfyingly complicated plot make this mystery a lively read.