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Source: Bought from Half.com
Back Cover Blurb:
Nothing is as it seems when would-be widow Susanna, Lady Appleton, finds her official period of mourning interrupted by a cryptic message from her supposedly dead spouse. Shockingly, Robert is alive--but not for long...
Neither late nor lamented by his wife, Sir Robert Appleton summons a stunned Susanna to a furtive London meeting. Yet intead of a reluctantly anticipated martial reunion, the renowned herbalist finds her poisoned husband gasping his last breaths beneath the Eleanor Cross. Vowing to bring his killer to justice, Susanna embarks on a daring winter journey across the frigid English countryside. She swiftly discovers that there is no shortage of those who bore animosity toward Robert--most of them female. But which of the wealthy, wayward knight's mistresses is a murderess? His widow is determined to find out, aware that the gallows now awaits the most likely suspect: Susanna herself...
This book is a murder mystery set in 1565, and it is meticulously researched. (In fact, historical tidbits that aren't necessary to understand what's going on are frequently strewn throughout the story.)
Solving the murder mystery doesn't seem to be the primary focus of the novel since most of the book is spent with Susanna playing with her stepdaughter or with the other characters falling in love with each other. This is just as well since I was able to correctly identify the murder immediately after our introduction to that character and none of the red herrings shook that conviction.
I suspect this book isn't a good one to be introduced to the heroine, Susanna Appleton. She is placed in a position were she should have emotions: concern, worry, dread, saddness, etc. Except for brief flashes of emotion, Susanna seems remarkably unbothered by anything, from the loss of her husband to the threat to her life to the stress of confronting her husbands mistresses. To me, she came across as bland and unrealisticaly unemotional.
I also had a hard time thinking very highly of Susanna. She only asks her suspects some brief, obvious questions and trustingly accepts their answers. She never tries to dig deeper to find the truth and doesn't look beyond "the obvious suspects" until she's about to be sentenced to death. This wouldn't be a problem except that all the characters think her so astonishingly clever at solving murder mysteries.
Luckily, the secondary point-of-view characters are engaging even if sometimes I didn't understand why they acted the way they did.
Two unmarried characters do have sex, but it isn't explict. I don't recall any cussing. I'd rate this book as "fairly clean fun."
Excerpt: Chapter One
January 3, 1565
"Back again, eh? 'E's gone on without ye. In a powerful hurry, 'e were, too."
Susanna Appleton broke off her survey of the tavern known as the Black Jack to stare at its proprietor. Until a moment ago, she'd never set foot in the place, but there might be some use in letting his misconception stand, especially if the mysterious "'e" turned out to be the man she sought. "How long ago did he leave?"
The tavernkeeper was shorter than she, a small, wiry man in a canvas apron. When he took a step closer, Susanna smelled garlic and stale, spilled wine, a pungent and unpleasant combination when trepidation had already made her queasy. A pock-marked face and brown teeth did nothing to alleviate her first, negative impression.
"Come and sit with old Ned, sweeting," he invited, leering at her, "and I'll tell you everything I know. But let's see what's under the 'ood this time."
Before she could stop him, he flipped the heavy wool away from her face, narrowing his eyes to get a better look. As he leaned in, the stench of his breath nearly made her gag.
Repulsed, Susanna backed away. Beneath her cloak, she fumbled for the small sharp knife suspended from the belt at her waist. She could expect no help from customers who frequented a place such as this, and for once she did not think it likely she'd be able to talk herself out of trouble.
The Black Jack Tavern was as disreputable as the lowest tippling house. A smoky fire burned in the chimney corner, spreading its murky light over four rickety trestle tables in a windowless, low-ceilinged room. Around them, occupying rough-hewn benches and stools, with not a chair in sight, were more than a dozen patrons, men who appeared down on their luck and potentially dangerous. A few of them were eating, but most ignored offerings of cheese and meat pies in favor of beverages served in black jacks, wooden cans treated with pitch on the inside.
To Susanna's relief, a call for more beer distracted Ned. The moment he turned away, she fled, escaping into the narrow street outside.