Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Book Review - Tasha Alexander's The Counterfeit Heiress

The Counterfeit Heiress by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: October 14th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

At a masquerade ball there are bound to be people dressed in similar costumes. A plethora of Cleopatras and Queen Elizabeths and Valkyries are to be expected. But Emily didn't expect another goddess of the hunt at the masked ball at Devonshire House. Let alone one who would cause a scene. Estella Lamar has supposedly stopped her gallivanting around the globe and eschewing the company of her peers by deigning to come to the Devonshire's ball in honor of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. But there's only one problem, beyond the fact she is dressed like Emily, she is not Estella Lamar! Emily's dear friend Cecile in full Marie Antoinette regalia, boat firmly in coiffure, is perhaps the only person Estella is in contact with, aside from the newspapers, as she journeys to the far flung corners of the globe, and Cecile quite clearly says that this Estella is an imposter! The ersatz Estella flees only to be found dead hours later on the banks of the Thames. The Duke of Devonshire contacts Emily's husband Colin to request that he investigates and to make sure this doesn't connect back to the ball. Soon Colin and Emily are on the case and are shocked to find that the victim is a rather respectable midwife, Mary Darby, who had aspirations of being an actress. So how did she end up at the event of the season impersonating a known recluse?

The more they look into Mary's murder the more they realize that Mary isn't the key, Estella is. Estella left France years previously after the death of her parents to see the pyramids and never looked back. Since then she has never returned to any of her three homes despite them all being kept in constant readiness of her arrival. In fact none of her employees have seen her since she left for Egypt! Yet her picture is always in the newspapers at some famous location. Or is it? Her face is never visible so it could be anyone so long as they have the right measurements... Emily begins to worry that her friend Cecile will be in for some heartbreaking news the further they follow the leads. Leads that take them across the channel to Paris where they make Cecile's house the center of their operations. They interrogate lawyers, dressmakers, printers, photographers, journalists, florists, and servants aplenty. But the only true clue they have is that they are chasing someone with a fondness for Dickens. Leaving names like Magwitch from Great Expectations and Swiveller from The Old Curiosity Shop in their wake as a type of calling card. Could this person be the auburn haired man with the magnificent mustache trailing Emily? Who knows. As time goes on it's harder to remember that they are there to find Mary's killer and not solve the mystery of Estella... But who says they can't solve both?

The more you read about wealthy families and their proclivities the more you realize it's a very thin line between eccentricity and illness which is blurred all the more depending on how much money is involved. Estella is a recluse with money, therefore her dislike of society and her habits that might seem rude to others Cecile is able to lump under the umbrella of eccentricity no matter what Emily thinks. So what if Estella left dinner before dessert? Who are we to judge if she hates people dropping in unannounced? If her best friends are dolls whom she tells stories to for hours on end should we really judge? Does it matter that much that all her houses are kept in readiness if she never plans on visiting them so long as the servants are paid? What would raise eyebrows among those of more modest means are easily forgiven by Estella's peers. Instead of seeing these habits as spiraling to some sad fate she is left to her own whims because of her monetary protection. There is almost an elegance to the madness of those with means and I can't help thinking of my Great-Grandmother Mildred Martin. Her husband was a prominent politician, lawyer, and judge in Wisconsin, while she left the raising of my grandmother to other family members and spent about forty years in her room, which she never left. Yet this was just viewed as how it was. One wonders in Mildred's case, much like Estella's, if things could have been different...

Yet Cecile shows us that Paris is far more forgiving of eccentricities than other cities. They thrive on their Bohemian artists and outsiders. Paris is a place unlike anywhere else and while Emily did spend some time in Paris during her first adventure, And Only to Deceive, the city didn't feel as real as it does in this volume. While it could be Tasha's abilities as a writer maturing over eight installments, which they have, I also have to give credit to the two locations that made this volume, the Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Catacombs of Paris. While this could be considered by some as macabre bordering on making Paris the "City of the Dead" as it where I think it's more fascinating then ghoulish, like Parisians's obsession with Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. But then again I am a girl who loves her true crime... What resonated with me was how these actual cities of the dead connect Paris to it's past and how one is there to honor the dead, so long as you're willing to keep your end of the bargain and pay for the upkeep, while the other is there to make a titillating show of death. To concentrate on the more sensational side of death with the Catacombs, I'd never known how they were used basically as a body dump for those ousted from places like Père Lachaise and that they were actually designed to be something out of a Guillermo del Toro daydream. The more you know!

Paris is also interesting in that while it is a city that celebrates it's history it is also willing to tear it down for the good of advancement. This fascinating dichotomy can be seen in this book by the discussion of two different art forms that I love. At the Devonshire ball there is a famous photographer, Mr. Lafayette, recording all the costumes for posterity. I just adore that this modern technology was used to capture this moment in history. Following Emily into his studio reminded me of how much I am fascinated by the history of photography, from the Civil War through to the Cottingley Fairies to even our modern obsession with selfies. Photography was and is an art form that was just at the cusp of it's heyday when Queen Victoria was celebrating her diamond jubilee. Whereas this is countered with printers in France. And don't you dare say typography isn't an art, because it so is! The current resurgence in letterpress is a sign that this form of artistic expression, while some might view it as outdated, is really classical and important to the history of not just books, but graphic design. I couldn't help being fascinated by an argument that French printers kept coming back to in Emily's investigation. Everyone has heard the current argument of one or two spaces behind a period, and at this time it was two for English typesetting, but in France it was a space on either side of the punctuation, making my graphic designer friends scream about floating punctuation. But just this little insight made the book that much more real and tangible to me.

Though it's actually the references to another author, not all the technology, art, or intricately arranged femurs and skulls with a slight wink to Indiana Jones, that really made this feel like a book written just for me. I'm talking about the Dickens of it all! I love that our villain uses Dickens in a way that isn't just a smokescreen for their real identity, but as a way to clue Emily, or any other Dickens aficionado, to their real motives. By using the name of Magwitch from Great Expectations, our villain is trying to make a statement while assuaging their own guilt, that while they might be a villain, like Magwitch, the proceeds of the villainy is going to serve the greater good. In the Dickens book that would be to fund Pip's lifestyle and education, but here, here by finding out what Magwitch is doing with their ill gotten gains proves the answer to the riddle of Estella. This integration of one author's work into another's is meta goodness. Think of it as a more historically accurate version of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books. I personally think this is just bloody brilliant, and now have started thinking if you could actually do it with other authors in a similar way. They would have to be popular in order to not be obscure... but then again, our villain might have just been doing it for his own fun. And mine. Because seriously, it entertained me to no end.

But in extrapolating the idea of using a popular author to entertain the masses or just using an author to entertain oneself Tasha does have a reference that most likely her loyal readers will get but those unfamiliar with authors whom Tasha loves to read and recommend, well it would have gone over their head. I'm talking about the Elizabeth Peters Easter Egg cleverly buried in The Counterfeit Heiress. Elizabeth Peters is the pen name of Barbara Mertz under which she wrote her wonderful Amelia Peabody series. The series, recommended to me by both Lauren Willig AND Tasha, is a wonderful twenty volumes of Egyptological romps starring Amelia Peabody and her husband Emerson and their friends and family as they catch master criminals and excavate priceless artifacts. If you haven't checked out this series, please do, you will not be disappointed. The third book in the series, The Mummy Case, has the hilariously named Baroness von Hohensteinbauergrunewald. The Baroness happens to have a cameo in passing in our story. Cecile and Emily go to Le Meurice, a hotel that Emily loves, and where they hope to find Estella, instead they find out the Baroness has just checked out, a fact that they both lament. Who wouldn't want to meet a lady with that name or that reputation? Ah, this just makes me want to read The Mummy Case all over again... there are just too many books to read let alone re-read!


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