After all the heavy books I’ve been reading lately, I felt the need to dip back into genre fiction for a while. I’m glad that I chose Tasha Alexander’s delightfully genre-breaking book, And Only to Deceive, the first book in the Lady Emily series of historical mysteries. From the very first page And Only to Deceive upsets genre expectations. Emily, Lady Ashton, is newly widowed when we met her. She and her husband were married for only a few months before Philip went on safari. A few months after that, he was dead. Now, Emily has to mourn him as much as society feels is appropriate—all while trying to solve a mystery about some faked antiques and fend off new marriage proposals. In the London of 1890, this is a full plate for any woman, no matter how clever.
The life of a Victorian widow is curiously freeing for a young woman. Though she has to wear black and shun social engagements, Emily is able to live in her own house, with her inherited fortune, mostly without commentary from her overbearing mother. She drinks port instead of sherry and guards her tongue less because she has no one she has to kowtow to anymore. Emily is her own mistress, for the first time in her life. The first hints of the mystery arrive in the form of a man with a scar on his face who appears to be following her. Then Emily’s husband’s acquaintances start to dig into Philip’s unfinished business with Greek antiquities. The more Emily discovers about her late husband, the more she starts to wonder if Philip was involved in the black market for stolen art and forgeries. There’s even a possibility that news of Philip’s demise might have been exaggerated.
As for genre expectations, the mystery doesn’t race (until near the end of the book, anyway). This isn’t to say there’s no tension. I was completely hooked. But the slow pace makes Emily’s investigation feel organic, more real than traditional mystery novels. She’s doesn’t become a sleuth over night. She follows red herrings and trusts the wrong people. Alexander doesn’t shoehorn-in a romance plot, either. Emily is attracted to two very different men in And Only to Deceive, but the course of love runs far from smoothly as the characters annoy and canoodle by turns. Though she cares for one of the men enough to consider marriage by the end of the novel, she is not ready to trade in her freedom for a husband. I think I would have been disappointed in Emily if she’d said yes. Marriage is too conventional for this uppity woman.
Notes on bibliotherapeutic use: Suggest this novel to readers who feel pressure to find a significant other or who have recently broken up with someone.