Historical Mysteries

Death Wears A Mask by Ashley Weaver

DeathWearsAMaskI found Murder at the Brightwell to be a charming and witty read and quickly fell in love with the two series leads, Amory and Milo. Death Wears A Mask picks up their story soon after the events of the first book but here we find that Amory and Milo’s relationship was not repaired just because they solved a case together.

It turns out that word has spread through London society about their adventures and soon Amory is approached by an old friend who is seeking her help. She believes that one of her friends has been stealing jewels from her home and wants Amory to put her detective skills to work to discretely figure out the guilty party without getting the police involved.

Amory reluctantly agrees to help set and spring a trap, using a fine necklace as bait at a high society party but when a guest is murdered at that party she finds herself once again investigating a murder.

There are a number of challenges that any second novel in a series, particularly one featuring a pair of amateur detectives, must face and overcome. It is often difficult for an author to find a credible way for the heroes to find their way into another murder case. After all, while we may accept that someone might find themselves confronted with a death in mysterious circumstances once, it can be hard to accept it happening on a regular basis.

This story faces an additional challenge however in that the first book seemed to have advanced the relationship between Amory and Milo to a much healthier, and perhaps less entertaining, point. If Weaver picked up exactly where she left off we would likely have a very different relationship and the approach to the story would have to be altered whereas if she ignored those developments and simply repeated the formula the reader is likely to feel a little cheated.

On the latter point I think Weaver makes some very smart choices. Rather than presenting us with an Amory and Milo who have resolved their trust issues and repaired their relationship, Milo still behaves in a thoughtless and insensitive way with regards Amory. In addition, Amory finds that she has attracted the interest of a notorious womanizer, causing Milo to become quite moody and jealous. In short, if you enjoyed their cool bickering and mutual mistrust in the first book you will have plenty to enjoy here.

Weaver is less successful in the way she approaches the first problem, although I think she had the right instinct to have Amory accidentally find herself engaged in another murder investigation while working on another case. While I might ignore one simple coincidence, we then have an additional and unnecessary one added when Detective Inspector Jones turns up having been given a transfer.

Matters are not helped either by the case being much less colorful than her first. The mechanics of what was done and how it was achieved were not particularly helpful while the array of suspects lacks some of the glamour and charm of those found in the earlier novel. Nor does it help much that the situation in which the crime occurs feels less dramatic than in Brightwell as Amory’s investment in the outcome is much lower when her ex’s life was on the line.

And yet.

Even when featured in a weaker mystery such as this, Amory and Milo cannot help but be entertaining. Sure, some of the obstacles to their reconciliation introduced here feel a little contrived to produce conflict but what makes this pairing work so well is the sense that the reader knows exactly who they are and the personalities they project. Both are extremely witty, cool and Amory’s wonderful practicality in the face of danger makes her a charming heroine.

While Death Wears A Mask may not be quite as accomplished as its predecessor, it still possesses charm and wit in abundance. If you enjoyed Amory and Milo’s first outing, there is plenty to enjoy here.

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Historical Mysteries

Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

MurderattheBrightwellMurder at the Brightwell is a charming novel that evokes many of the tropes and elements of the Golden Age mystery novel as well as the society comedies of the time. Stylistically it falls comfortably between being a historical mystery and a literary pastiche, perhaps being too modern in sentiment to be entirely either.

Regardless of how you categorize or label the novel it is a joy and that in large part comes down to its characterization. Our lead, Amory Ames, is a smart, witty and capable woman who has been left frustrated and disappointed by her marriage to the charming but reckless playboy Milo who she sees more of in the society pages and gossip columns than she does in person.

Years before the novel began she threw over her solid, dependable fiancé, Gil, to run off with and marry Milo on an impulse. Now Gil has turned up at her home to ask her to stay with him at the Brightwell Hotel in the hopes that she will speak with his sister about her experiences and scare her off marrying her own version of Milo, the dashing Rupert Howe.

Their plan is quickly derailed when, shortly after they arrive, they find Rupert murdered. Gil is arrested for the crime and Amory is determined that she will find some evidence to exonerate him, all the while dealing with her confusion about how she feels about him. And, if that wasn’t complicated enough, Milo turns up at the hotel and is soon drawn into the investigation himself.

If ever someone acquires the movie rights to this book and a time machine capable of going back and catching actors at the right age I am absolutely sure I can cast that movie. To me, Milo is Rupert Graves in the mid-to-late 90s or possibly a James Purefoy from around the time he did Rome. Dark, dashing and utterly charming with a little pinch of self-obsessed ass thrown into the mix. Amory is an Emma Thompson-type being confident, cutting and dignified in the most awkward and embarrassing of scenarios. As for Gil, read a solid and dependable Matthew Macfadyen.

Now, wouldn’t you want to see that movie?

I rarely read a story and imagine it being acted out – I am not that visual a reader – but this book so perfectly pitches its characters that I think most readers will be able to associate them with an analog. That does not mean that I think those characters are simplistic; Amory and Milo’s feelings about their dysfunctional relationship are surprisingly complex and I imagine many readers would feel conflicted about whether they would be happier apart.

The pair soon find themselves working together, with slightly different objectives, to prove Gil’s innocence. As a sleuthing team they are a highly entertaining pair but then I have always been a fan of bickering dialogue. I found their reasons for getting involved in this case credible and I appreciated that the tension between those characters at times inspires them to fresh discoveries and at others threatens to derail the whole case.

To my delight, that case was actually a pretty solid mystery complete with a good array of suspects and clues for Amory and Milo to consider as well as a healthy supply of red herrings to throw our detectives off the trail. The solution is unlikely to surprise many readers but I thoroughly enjoyed the process of getting there and felt satisfied by the conclusion.

Some may feel that the mystery plot is overshadowed by the romance elements. Others may regard the love triangle as lopsided with one man clearly set up as the character Amory will pick. Both of these complaints are justified, although neither troubled me. The romantic angle of the book is important because it has a bearing on how Amory and Milo are working together and it provides the motivation for the investigation in the first place.

Murder at the Brightwell may not be for everyone but I had a very enjoyable time reading it. The characters and setting are lively, the dialogue is witty and the mystery itself entertains. Weaver clearly has an enormous affection for the era of detective fiction she evokes and while this does not match the best of those for ingenuity, it certainly does for charm.