Anna Lee Huber: A Deceptive Composition

Lady Darby #12

This enjoyable series centers on unconventional artist Lady Darby, aka Kiera Gage, who still carries her first husband’s title, though she’s since remarried one Sebastian Gage. That first husband was cruel, forcing her to use her artistic skills as an anatomical illustrator to sketch as he dissected corpses, an extremely disreputable occupation for a woman in the 1830s.  Fortunately for her, his passing left her free to marry her dishy second husband and have a baby with him.  She now uses those skills as a society portraitist, but it’s her eye that makes this series original, detecting colors and relevant details others would miss. It’s her incredible powers of observation that makes her such a valuable assistant to her husband, an operative for the crown.

Her new father-in-law, Lord Gage, has been a cranky problem in books one through eleven, but in the last one he was injured and Kiera and Sebastian went to tend to him, bringing their baby, little Emma.

It’s the latter who breaks the ice, with Lord Gage proving to be quite the doting grandfather.  In this outing, his Lordship gets a request from his family to help investigate the death of an uncle in Cornwall.  Despite the fact that he hasn’t been there for fifty years and has many, many bad memories of his childhood there, he agrees.  Of course Kiera, Sebastian and Emma accompany him on the long and arduous trek to the coast.

Cornwall is the setting of many a wonderful mystery (notably DuMaurier’s Rebecca) and it’s delightful to see the talented Huber make jolly good use of the locale. Known for their smugglers and “wreckers,” the good folk of Cornwall may have rescued many shipwreck victims, but they also picked those wrecks clean, and perhaps even lured them to the rocks in the first place.  The caves and coves along the shore were perfect for stashing ill gotten treasure, liquor, and many other illicit items.  And as it turns out, Lord Gage’s obstreperous family, the notable Roscarrocks, have long been smugglers.

This book is a depiction of the unravelling of the family history that caused Lord Gage’s departure in the first place, as well as his many unresolved feelings about his relatives. The trip, painful as it turns out to be, has the consolation of drawing him closer to his son and daughter in law.

The Roscarrocks are, collectively, what we might refer to today as a piece of work, a family full of squabbles and resentments that are even further roiled by the uncertainty about the death of Gage’s uncle and the shadowy motives behind it.  Huber manages to create a rich canvas of characters in a small location, deftly portraying the members of the Roscarrock family as well as a group of rival smugglers, the Grenvilles.  They may refer to themselves as “free traders,” but smuggling is smuggling, no matter the terminology.  Yet, the very harshness of the landscape around them and the hardscrabble nature of their meager existence make a case for smuggling – the families were simply making use of the only opportunities fortune provided.

Huber manages to combine a skilful mystery with an adventure tale, some romance (Kiera and Sebastian have a very happy marriage), and the beautifully layered portrayal of an extremely troubled family.  This is a very solidly entertaining series, and I always look forward to heading off for a new visit with Kiera and her extended clan. — Robin Agnew