Port-swilling sleuth Lady Emily Ashton embroils herself in an international intrigue that might just start World War I two decades early.
In the third of Alexander’s series (A Poisoned Season, 2007, etc.), Lord Fortescue, a powerful advisor to Queen Victoria, invites Emily and friends to a hunting party at his country house, apparently for the sole purpose of insulting them all weekend. Too soon, a major source of suspense—wondering when Fortescue’s guests will storm out en masse—is dispelled by someone putting a bullet through the host’s head. Although Fortescue had dirt on nearly everyone in England, the most immediate suspect is his former political protégé, Robert Brandon, husband of Emily’s dear friend Ivy. Clapped in Newgate prison, Robert begs Emily to find the real killer. Fortescue had received death threats from Vienna, he reveals. Fortunately for Emily’s vast wardrobe, the Waltz season is in full lilt there, so it’s all aboard the Orient Express. Accompanying our redoubtable amateur detective are her childhood friend and would-be lover Jeremy, Duke of Bainbridge, and her French copine Cécile, herself a pal of Austria’s bereaved empress Sissi, who’s mourning her son’s death in a supposed suicide pact. Once in snowy Vienna, Emily befriends a struggling artist who leads her to Gustav Schröder, an anarchist who knows of Fortescue’s nefarious plot to lead England into war with Germany by fomenting a bombing during the Kaiser’s visit to Vienna. Emily’s betrothed Colin, often absent on clandestine spying missions, stops by occasionally to kiss her soulfully and commiserate about their delayed nuptials, postponed by Emily’s mother until Queen Victoria can fit them into her social calendar. Emily dodges Harrison, a sinister cohort of Fortescue’s who leaves bullets in her hotel room, purse, favorite cafe, etc., just to show he can. The convoluted plot verges on impenetrable, and rich, cosseted Emily remains a heroine whose mettle is in serious need of testing.
Tantalizing but ultimately tepid.