I never have been, nor will I ever be a fan of the genre novella. The reader-deliciousness of romance and mystery is in the sinking-in for a long, luxurious, fully-developped read. (Despite its spareness, I would say that a great category romance accomplishes this very thing as well.) BUT two of my favourite authors were featured in this inter-connected anthology of novellas and I couldn’t resist. I was especially lured by the promise of Kearsley and Harris goodness, even though Harris’s narrative isn’t Regency-set, nor features my frisson-inducing favourite hero, Sebastian St. Cyr, but I’ll take what I can get. I thought the premise and historical arc, linked by this “cursed” pocket-watch, intriguing:
A stellar line-up of historical mystery novelists weaves the tale of a priceless and cursed gold watch as it passes through time wreaking havoc from one owner to another. The characters are irrevocably linked by fate, each playing a key role in breaking the curse and destroying the watch once and for all.
From 1733 Italy to Edinburgh in 1831 to a series of chilling murders in 1870 London, and a lethal game of revenge decades later, the watch touches lives with misfortune, until it comes into the reach of one young woman who might be able to stop it for good.
The four novellas are inter-connected by the watch, as well as the four elements: the watch must endure a test by air, earth, fire, and water before the curse can be broken. The anthology had everything necessary to make for a great read: mystery, a hint of mortality and fate in the cursed-watch motif, and rich historical detail. And yet, while I enjoyed the individual efforts, I can’t say it ever came together … and maybe that is just the nature of the beast. I felt the same way about Willig, Williams, and White’s All the Ways We Said Goodbye. I liked the bits, wasn’t keen on the whole. Kearsley’s and Harris’s efforts, however, were quite enjoyable
Kearsley launches the story of the cursed watch with her protagonists from A Desperate Fortune, Hugh MacPherson and Mary Dundas (now MacPherson). I loved Kearsley’s novella less for the intrigue and mystery than her control of the form and her theme of a marriage that needed some smoothing of rough edges. She opens her novella with Mary and Hugh aboard a ship bound for Rome (or Genoa?) waylaid by a storm. They shelter in an inn and friends and foes soon join them: a dubious pirate-captain and possible assassin, also bound for Rome and with the mission to murder King James (of Hugh’s Jacobite cause). What ensues is a foiling of the villain, the disappearance of the watch to appear in the next novella, and Mary gently trying to tell Hugh that she doesn’t want a protector, but a partner. Hugh is rough, gruff, and lethal, and loves Mary more than his life. But Mary is subtle and clever and begins, for friend and foe alike, to weave a story with the theme love means setting the beloved free to take a full and important place in one’s life and cause (hint, hint, Hugh). Hugh is silently reluctant and set in his ways, but Mary dissuades him by taking control not just of the narrative she weaves but the danger and mystery that besets them. In Kearsley’s writing, one can sense her touch with forces beyond the characters’ control: of fate and destiny, of a spirit that moves through things to see them bend towards the right, the light, and love. Kearsley is that writer that sides with Hamlet’s admonition, “there are more things in heaven and earth”.
Harris, on the other hand, whose novella I also enjoyed, is a rationalist and moralist: her characters want to see right done and so, they do it themselves. They do not adhere to expediency, or follow the crowd. In her novella, the last of the lot set in Kent during WWII, a young woman, Rachel Townsend-Smythe, trained in history and curatorship, sees several mysterious murders in her town, New Godwick. In town are also Jude Lowe and Remus Stokes, purportedly from Scotland Yard, secretly in search of a German spy and soon investigating the murders as well, murders linked by the mysterious “cursed” watch. If Kearsley’s romance is of a newly married couple growing in love and trust, Harris’s is of two people who fall in love as they investigate murder and solve the watch’s mystery. Kearsley launches and Harris moors the story. Jude is never quite convincing to Rachel as “Scotland Yard” and she refers to him as MI-5. Their HEA is somewhat hurried, but their encounters are entertaining and the characters so likeable, a reader wishes them happiness, especially because there is a long-war, it’s 1944, melancholy to them both, loss and heartache, and a dislocation as to “what’s next?” as the end of the war looms. Harris’s lovely answer lies in “each other” and one displaced little boy …
Though I still love Kearsley’s and Harris’s books, The Deadly Hours didn’t manage to make me a novella fan. With Miss Austen, we agree The Deadly Hours is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Kearsley’s, Trent’s, Huber’s, and Harris’s The Deadly Hours is published by Poisoned Pen Press. It was released in September 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley, from Poisoned Pen Press, via Netgalley.