|Yet another mystery title – there is no trap here, not even the suggestion of one. There is a bachelor, though – Brand Hamilton, illegitimate son of a duke. Brand was raised by his maternal grandfather, as his mother died within months of his birth. He lived within spitting distance of the Priory, the ducal seat of his father, the Duke of Shelbourne. Brand has become a successful newspaper owner and is contemplating standing for election to Parliament on what appears to be an anti-establishment, anti-monarchy republican platform in the Longbury district that encompasses the Priory.
Interestingly, Brand is also the sole trustee appointed by the late duke to watch over the estate and the raising of his younger, legitimate, half-siblings: Andrew, the current duke, and his sister Clarice. These two, along with her husband, their grandmother the Dowager Countess, Uncle Robert and Aunt Theodora all live at the Priory, while Brand lives nearby. Adjacent to the Priory is Yew Cottage, owned by Miss Edwina, the aged spinster who had been Brand’s teacher and close confident. Miss Edwina has died under mysterious circumstances, having just sent a letter to Brand about an unsolved mystery: the disappearance of Edwina’s sister Hannah some 20 years earlier.
Miss Edwina willed her estate to her niece Marion, and it’s a good thing she did; Marion and her two sisters have been nearing the end of a long slide that began with the death of their parents a couple of years earlier. They had been allowed to occupy a smaller home on the estate now belonging to a distant cousin who had been made Earl upon their father’s death. Unfortunately, this house was needed for the new earl’s mother-in-law and the family of three girls had been displaced again, and with virtually no prospects.
Marion is vastly relieved to inherit from this aunt she barely remembers, and plans to head to Longbury after a brief stay in London. While in London Marion and her sisters make the acquaintance of Mr. Hamilton. Marion is polite but distant; of course, she is unaware of the connection between Brand and Aunt Edwina, and doesn’t realize that he has deliberately sought her out. In her last letter to Brand, Aunt Edwina indicated that she had suspicions about Hannah’s disappearance 20 years earlier, but also that she now had reason to believe that her niece Marion, just seven at the time of the disappearance, might have some information about it. To Brand, Marion is a mystery; why was this beautiful, well-behaved earl’s eldest daughter tucked away in the Lake District at age 27, never having had a Season in London? And Marion does have something mysterious going on; she has twice paid off an ex-fiancé to avoid the disclosure of damaging information, and now she has twice received anonymous threatening notes.
This book had a great deal going for it, and I really wanted to like it more. Brand in particular, and Marion to an only slightly lesser degree, were well-drawn characters, well matched in both their strengths and their foibles. The mystery of Hannah’s disappearance was layered and nuanced and the dénouement a surprise, but not such a surprise that you have to go back through previous chapters to answer your “huh?” There was also a very funny scene that seemed completely original, detailing the Longbury festival reenactment of a battle between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, with Uncle Robert as King Charles and Brand as Oliver Cromwell. Halfway through the annual reenactment, the gloves come off and the fists start to fly. Apparently it ends this way every year, but it can’t be canceled because “the villagers won’t allow it.”
In spite of these strengths, the three star rating reflects the more insurmountable flaws: we go for too long wondering what big, hairy secret keeps Marion from just thanking her lucky stars that Brand is interested in her and marrying him, an act that would vastly improve her own life and that of her sisters. It is not as though she finds him, or his untidy parentage, objectionable. No, it’s just that big, hairy secret that goes undisclosed for too long and, in the end, wasn’t close to being a deal breaker for him. However, I did appreciate and respect the way he reacted when it was discovered. The larger problem for me, though, was the huge distraction of historical questions:
Brand was labeled a “newspaperman,” one who owned a string of papers across the country, and was imbued with the skills and attitudes of a modern investigative reporter. Neither seemed right – the first seemed more a late 19th/early 20th century nomenclature, and the second a much later 20th century phenomenon. Most of the newspaper detail was at the beginning of the story, and it was jarring; I couldn’t get around my annoyance and into the book until much later. It also cast a pall over the extremely interesting information about standing for election to Parliament – I found myself questioning every detail.
Without this last issue, this could have easily been a 4 heart book for me, although that would violate my new rule for reviewing books – if I can’t for the life of me determine how a book got its title, it can receive no more than 3 hearts. Harsh, I know.