The next chapter in Robertsonís exotic detective series has Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther embarking on a trip to Ulrichsberg in Duchy of Maulberg.
They are reluctantly traveling to this European locale where Harrietís brother-in-law, Daniel Clode, has been accused of murder. Harriet and Gabriel have become great partners and friends, although Harriet has been trying to live quietly after the trials, scandals and losses of the previous years.
Forced to rescue Daniel and her sister, Rachel French, from the machinations of the Ulrichsberg court, Harriet must again call upon Gabriel Crowther. Gabriel is sure that the hysterical outpouring of fear and the assertion of Danielís innocence is behind the sudden conviction that the terrible misunderstanding can be speedily cleared up.
Against the backdrop of the Ulrichsberg Palace, a place of "butter-colored walls, flowing to an open formal garden of sculpted hedgerows," poor Daniel Clode was last seen with his smooth forehead smeared in blood, his bandaged wrists uppermost with dark blooms showing, "the wounds declaring themselves in a sea of gore." District Officer von Krall attends to the arrival of Mrs. Westerman and Mr. Crowther, positive that Daniel Clode is an honest man and a brave one. He canít quite believe that this affable Englishman murdered Lady Martesen, whose body showed no bruising.
With her usual panache, Robertson details late eighteenth-century time and place, the weather mysterious with the "dry fog" and sulfur-scented heat. Allowed to penetrate into the world of mysterious automata, Harriet is able to learn what Gabriel cannot.
She is immersed in the cloistered world of those who await the attentions of the Grand Duke and the machinations of Lady Martesen, along with a series of dangerous alliances and competing marriages.
There is also the matter of a promise to Harriet's old nemesis, Manzerotti, a
monster without principle or ideal who fled England after the death of Harriet's
husband. Manzerotti holds a promise that will draw Harriet more deeply into the
particular politics of this sheltered court rife with secret plans and considerable danger. What appears a fairly complex crime becomes far more complicated when Harriet and Gabriel attempt to shield themselves from a series a death scenes that look like horror plays. Looking toward the machinations of Herr Kupfel, an old chemist, who had a book of spells stolen by a servant girl called Beatrice, Harriet and Gabriel soon realize
that the key to unlocking the murder of Lady Martesen may be in the precious circle of seven, encapsulated in the shadows and secrets and theatrics of a charlatan.
While clever and untrustworthy Pegal hatches an ingenious plan for revenge begun years ago, Crowther works to discover the chemicals used in a drugged mask, tying them to Danielís symptoms. Someone is using a certain substance in the Dukeís chamber of wonders. Pitting the forces of wealth and power in the Ulrichsberg Court against the formidable investigative resources of Harriet and Crowther, it
grows clear that poor, deranged Daniel was indeed a victim of special interests even as the servants of Ulrichsberg turn a blind eye in favor of the powerful patrons.
Composed of multiple storylines and with references to Westerman and Crowther's past, the novel captures the exotic beauty of Maulberg: the sumptuous palaces, the luxuries of the court, the imminent danger concealed by elaborate manners and social propriety. While the author lost me a few times meandering among all of the intrigues,
she captures the late Georgian era to perfection as Harriet and Crowther determine to save Daniel from the dreaded noose.