McCleary’s Victorian adventure has journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922) voyaging to Egypt, on the next leg of her record-breaking 'round-the-world journey sponsored by New York’s Joseph Pulitzer. Hardly the demure lady, it is hoped the trip will satisfy Nellie’s sense of adventure and her incessant yearning for foreign intrigue.
The Illusion of Murder begins as McCleary introduces a group of travelers who will accompany Nellie on her journey: Lord Warton and his wife, Lady Warton, who appears wedded to hats and netted veils; the officious Von Reich; and Mr. Frederick Selous, who becomes Nellie’s unlikely hero.
From being left blind in the darkness with a deadly snake that could strike at any second, Nellie wonders if she could have done differently as she flushes out a killer in a land blessed by the sun and damned by ancient curses. Summoned to a dangerous world, Nellie’s only safety comes from being ensconced with her companions as they make their way along the narrow, unpaved Port Said roadways alive with people and animals, the swirl of dust and noise and oppressive heat.
There’s a scarab seller, and Nellie senses tension. A hooded man grabs a bike rider--his distinguishing features: British Army boots and exposed white skin. His dying words are spoken with a British accent, the man whispering something Nellie doesn’t catch: “Amelia.” Regardless of the fact that she just witnessed what amounted to an execution in a medieval bazaar, Nellie is certain the man was speaking his wife’s name in his last moment.
Nellie needs to get her feet solidly back under her and stay focused on the race even as she's drawn more deeply into
the gloom and anxiety of a world rife with unanswered questions and secret plots. The deadly rage of the
"Mahdi" casts a long shadow in Nellie’s mind, feeding on her doubts and fears. A key acts as a magnet, bringing danger and intrigue to Nellie and perpetuating her sense of distrust towards Lord and Lady Warton.
From the ruins of the ancient ghost city of Tanis to Lady Warton’s caustic wit, McCleary writes a story of
illusion and trickery that moves from Colombo to Hong Kong. Her delightful heroine always takes chances while trying to dodge considerable danger. From the warmth she
feels for Frederick to an Australian magician who becomes collatoral damage, everyone on Nellie’s voyage harbors secrets.
Nellie is caught in a disturbing web of spymasters when what appears to be a localized killing becomes far more complicated. Nellie befriends Sarah Bernhardt,
who throws a kink into the best-laid plans of men and nations. McCleary’s lighthearted mix of fact and fiction always entertains, her plucky heroine determined to finish her race as she waves the flag for Queen and country.