Lady Emily Ashton returns, this time to decipher Marie Antoinette’s letters, solve a pair of murders and stop a pretender to the Bourbon throne.
Alluring widow of substance Emily would prefer to enjoy her usual pursuits: translating Homer, drinking port (an outré tipple for Victorian ladies) and keeping suitors, such as dashing Colin Hargreaves and Duke Jeremy Bainbridge, at bay. But it’s the London Season, and Emily’s mother is pressing her to remarry while her friends want her to circulate. Society is lionizing a newcomer, Charles Berry. Claiming direct lineage to Louis XVI, he aims to topple the République and claim his throne. Emily is repelled by Charles, who’s angling to groom her as his future Madame de Pompadour, but these petty concerns soon fade: Her townhouse is invaded by a cat burglar who specializes in the former property of Marie Antoinette. The burglar also papers Emily with billets-doux in ancient Greek. After she convinces an acquaintance, David Francis, to report the theft of his pink diamond (another of Marie’s treasures), David and his valet turn up dead, both poisoned by nicotine-laced shaving cream. A housemaid is charged with both murders when the nicotine, an aphid-killer, is traced to her gardener lover. Hargreaves repairs to France, where he’ll work behind the scenes to thwart Charles’s ambitions. Meanwhile, Emily starts decoding a packet of letters given her by Beatrice, David’s widow. They are Marie Antoinette’s letters from prison to a trusted confidant who was supervising the care of her son, the dauphin. While nimbly sidestepping attempts on her life and assaults on her reputation, Emily cracks the letters’ coded plans: to smuggle the dauphin to England in the care of a servant. When her burglar reveals himself as a descendant of the servant family sworn to protect the Bourbon heirs, she deduces the real identities of David Francis and his illegitimate son, whose secret she must guard until she decides whether to marry again.
A ponderously ornate, red herring–replete, but mildly diverting mystery.