Jove, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-15606-5
Historical Romance, 2016 (Reissue)
Well, it seems like Amanda Quick has really put behind her all the woo-woo stuff for now, as Garden of Lies is the second consecutive book without any mind reading or auras in sight. Still, that’s not to say that this book is breaking the mold anytime soon. It’s all familiar stuff, although there is some fantastic spooky atmosphere here.
Ursula Kern owns and manages one of the most exclusive secretarial agencies in Victorian-era London. Her secretaries are capable and well-recommended, and the client base pays enough for her employees to live pretty well. The story begins with a murder, of course. Anne Clifton, Ursula’s friend as well as employee, was found dead recently, and the police ruled her death as due to natural causes (a stroke, they say). Ursula believes otherwise, as Anne left a note, written in her personal stenographic code that only Ursula could crack, that leads Ursula to some strange items tucked away in the water closet. What was Anne trying to tell her? Something doesn’t add up, so she decides to take matters into her hand. She will take the place of Anne and look for clues at the home of Anne’s last assignment – Lady Fulbrook, who wants someone to take down her efforts at poetry.
However, Ursula is currently tied up with assisting Slater Roxton, our hero, as he inventories the possessions of his late father that has been entrusted to him. Because she is so honorable and nice like that, she explains the real reason she has to temporarily drop the assignment to Slater. He is initially frustrated that the woman he has the hots for is walking out on him, but he soon decides to watch over her and make sure that she doesn’t get into real trouble. It’s not long before they end up investigating the whole thing together.
Ursula is basically another heroine by this author – she is thought by the rest of the world as just another ordinary lady, but seen by the hero as awesome and sexy; she has a past that she’d like to keep hidden, et cetera. Still, to give the author plenty of credit, when push comes to shove, Ursula can bloody well take care of herself, thank you very much.
Stephen, on the other hand, is quite over the top. He is an archeologist who was once left for dead on an island – he was in a temple when it caved in, you see – only to find his way out and into some kind of monastery where he learned some secret zen of life (not, fortunately, that Vanzawangamamachita nonsense that the author kept overusing a couple of years back). He is the illegitimate offspring of a nobleman and an actress, and his father entrusted him to manage the man’s money and holdings because, apparently, the man’s legitimate brats are all mostly useless turds. His return to England has everyone claiming that he has dark secrets and a habit of kidnapping ladies to his basement, where he’d then perform forbidden sex rites on them. He’s like that guy from Mischief on extra steroids. Therefore, imagine my disappointment when nowhere in this story does he show up in a ninja costume while wielding some kind of whip with a dildo-shaped accoutrement at the end of the lash. Come on, the author puts all these things in the hero’s back story only to have him behave like a standard brooding “don’t think love works” hero of hers? What a waste.
The main characters have good chemistry and they really seem to like one another, although the romance is pretty tepid. You know the deal, I’m sure – all the lusting, then he suddenly kisses her, she likes it, and there will be some half-hearted sexy times later in the book before he decides that love will work for him after all. The partners-in-crime aspect of their relationship is more interesting, as he actually allows her to do her thing without being overbearing in a “I’m a man, I must be in charge all the time for your own good!” way. She generally is competent enough, so it feels right that he allows her to do her thing and work alongside her, stepping in to take over only when things get really hairy and she is way out of her depths.
The suspense elements, however, end up being disappointing even more than the romance, maybe because I’m come to expect a bland romance from the author. The atmosphere is good, and the build-up is interesting as a result, but the middle parts of the story see our characters drifting away from the investigation to do more romance-y things like Ursula meeting his mother and he taking care of his family matters. My interest picks up a bit later when the story focuses back on the suspense, but even then, things are quite dull as the author falls back on her old tricks, tricks that didn’t really work the first time. Suspects turn up dead just when the hero and the heroine discover their identities, the villains practically come to the good guys to gloat and explain everything about their plot so that our investigative twosome don’t have to do too much sleuthing, and so forth. Given that the cast of possible suspects is small here, I correctly guessed the identities of the actual villain and the plot twists and turns once the author has laid down enough clues during the middle-ish parts of the book. So, for a long time, I’m just waiting for the story to confirm my suspicions.
And really, with an address found in the notebook left behind by Anne – these two take so long to decide to look up the address? Seriously?
Anyway, Garden of Lies is pretty much another story by this author. If you have read enough of her books, you know what you will get here. While I doubt anyone will get indigestion after reading this book and I like the main characters, I end up feeling that the poorly executed suspense plot end up doing these characters and the initial intriguing premise of the whole story little justice. The author could have done more here, even while sticking to her formula.