Thursday, March 26, 2015
Review: The Counterfeit Heiress
Minotaur Books, October 2014
About the Book
In Tasha Alexander’s novel The Counterfeit Heiress, after an odd encounter at a grand masquerade ball, Lady Emily becomes embroiled in the murder investigation of one of the guests, a sometime actress trying to pass herself off as the mysterious heiress and world traveler Estella Lamar. Each small discovery, however, leads to more questions. Was the intended victim Miss Lamar or the imposter? And who would want either of them dead?
As Emily and Colin try to make sense of all this, a larger puzzle begins to emerge: No one has actually seen Estella Lamar in years, since her only contact has been through letters and the occasional blurry news photograph. Is she even alive? Emily and Colin’s investigation of this double mystery takes them from London to Paris, where, along with their friend Cécile, they must scour the darkest corners of the city in search of the truth.
Lady Emily and her husband Colin return in this ninth installment of the Lady Emily mystery series. At the Devonshires’ 1897 costume ball, Lady Emily is mistaken for someone else in an Artemis costume, a woman who is posing as the elusive heiress Estella Lamar. (Real photographs from this historic event were taken and examples of the guests and their elaborate costumes can be found here.) When the pretender ends up murdered, Emily, Colin, and their friends Jeremy and Cecile work to track down the murderer, but why was this woman pretending to be Ms. Lamar and, more importantly, where is the real Ms. Lamar now? The world-traveling heiress owns three houses, all fully staffed, that she never visits. Pictures of her on her various jaunts across the globe appear in the newspapers, but no one can reliably contact her. The search takes the group to Paris where they track down an heiress who clearly does not want to be found.
As I read this book, Estella Lamar and her collection of fully-staffed but long empty mansions instantly brought to mind the real-life heiress Huguette Clark of Empty Mansions fame. Like Ms. Clark, the fictional Ms. Lamar is an elusive, mentally imbalanced woman of excessive means, someone poorly suited to life outside her protected, pampered walls. Ms. Alexander mentions the similarity between the fictional and the factual in her author’s note, and the overlaps are fascinating.
As I mentioned in my review of Behind the Shattered Glass, Ms. Alexander excels at vivid description, whether the setting is a London residence such as Devonshire House, a drawing room in Derbyshire, or the famous Parisian cemetery Pere Lachaise. Diving into one of her books is like time traveling to Victorian England—a simply delightful escape with characters who are so witty, charming, and engaging that you don’t want to miss a minute in their company. This series is a joy to read.
Rebecca Henderson Palmer