“ Print Length: 395 pages / Publisher: NYLA / Published: 23 Mar 2011 „
When Daughter of the Game, the first book in this series, was published it was received to great acclaim and Tracy Grant was hailed as the next big thing in the historical mystery genre and that continued with her second book. Unfortunately, her timing was a little off and her attempt to get her third book published coincided with the advent and subsequent deluge of vampires and werewolves and as publishers are a fickle breed and will always chase the money, she was unable to find one prepared to publish a book in a genre considered to be in a dwindling market. Some years on and with the birth of the Kindle, she's got her book out at last, plus a couple of interim novellas, so The Mask of Night is only available currently in electronic format, selling at a very reasonable £1.92, an absolute steal for a riveting and enjoyably intelligent read.
Charles and Melanie Fraser are just getting their lives back on an even keel after the dramatic events following the abduction of their young son. The abduction had resulted in a great deal of Melanie's past involvement with the Bonapartists being revealed to Charles for the first time which has understandably made trust between the two something of an issue and they are both struggling to repair the damage to their marriage. Whilst attending a masked ball given by their close friends, Oliver and Isobel Lydgate, a body is discovered in the garden and it's clear he has been murdered. The body is that of Julien St Juste, a known Bonapartist spy as well as a former lover of Melanie, who it seems is still keeping secrets from her husband. It seems, however, that St Juste is known to others in post-Waterloo London and as Charles and Melanie begin to investigate, all kinds of secrets come to light, some muddying the waters but others demonstrating that although Napoleon Bonaparte may be safely imprisoned on St Helena, the Bonapartist cause is still being fought.
The Mask of Night takes place in my favourite historical time period, that of the English Regency, albeit in 1820, right at the very end of the Regency. Although the era was one of surface glamour, this was the beginning of our own modern age with huge strides forward being made in engineering, the sciences and also in everyday thinking. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the time when Britain was at the height of her power and influence in the world.
The author claims that the book can be read as a standalone story and that's true to a certain extent. Charles and Melanie have a very convoluted back story, however, and only the bare bones are covered here where the author feels it's necessary to the plot. To gain full knowledge of the subtle nuances of their partnership, it's well worth reading the previous two full length novels in the series. It doesn't matter which of the two you read first either, because there is a rather strange chronology to the series with action in the first book taking place after that of the second which is really more of a prequel.
This book takes up the story some five years on from when Charles and Melanie met and married and they are now settled in London with their two children. Charles, the grandson of a Duke, is a sitting MP with radical leanings and Britain at that time was a hotbed of radicalism and there seem to have been many escaped Bonapartists living in the country, including Melanie's former spymaster and lover, Raoul O'Roarke, a shadowy figure whose political intentions are somewhat dubious. Raoul also has a personal connection to Charles as well as Melanie and he had helped them when their young son Colin was abducted but this time neither Charles nor Melanie are certain what Raoul's motives may be or whether or not he's setting up a radical network in Britain to overthrow the unpopular Hanoverian monarchy.
Although this is a work of fiction, the author has cleverly interwoven real life characters amongst the fictional ones which give both the story and the setting an added authenticity. I've read other historical mysteries featuring husband and wife teams but this particular coupling is on much more of an equal footing with Melanie having been a former French spy and more than capable of holding her own in most situations. It's even mentioned in the story that beneath her elegant and beautiful exterior there's a woman who is possibly even more ruthless than her husband.
It isn't giving too much of the story away to say that Melanie has been working as a spy since she was seventeen and has used her femininity to further her espionage. She married Charles out of expediency but her feelings have changed since then and despite her holding back some secrets of her former life, they are more happily married than many of their contemporaries.
It's Melanie's former life which sparks the action for this story and it centres around Hortense Bonaparte, the daughter of the Empress Josephine and therefore Napoleon's step-daughter. Hortense had an illegitimate child and it's feared that the child who was adopted by the paternal grandparents may be being used as a rallying point for French revolutionaries and their cause has spilled over into British political life.
Like most people, I'd thought that with the Battle of Waterloo, the Napoleonic Wars came to an end but this novel points out that it certainly wasn't beyond the bounds of credulity to think that all those who escaped after Waterloo may have wanted to continue the fight, especially as Britain had reinstalled a very unpopular French monarchy following Napoleon's final defeat.
It had been a while since I'd read the previous two books in this series but I picked up the threads of Charles and Melanie's lives very quickly and was soon once more thoroughly absorbed in their latest investigation and although the story has a political theme it isn't at all dry. The author is an American but never once did she make a slip either with her historical detail or linguistically and the result is a real page turner which pulls the reader into an England of two hundred years ago but one populated by people who not only come across as real but with whom it's very easy to identify.
The series so far:
1. Daughter of the Game (also published as Secrets of a Lady)
2. Beneath a Silent Moon
3. The Mask of Night