First Sentence: I pondered the package that reposed on the dining-room table for a long time.
Retired Army Captain Gabriel Lacey has a complicated tit-for-tat relationship with James Denis, ruler of London's underworld. Instructed by Denis to deliver a package containing a White Queen chess piece to his competitor and nemesis Harlow Creasy, Lacey must comply. Waylaid by an old Army friend, Major Miles Eden, newly arrived from Antigua, they, along with bodyguard Brewster, confront Creasy landing Lacey in the middle of a dangerous turf war. Afterward, Eden asks for Lacey's help clearing him of a murder charge.
The first thing one notices is Gardner's voice. She has captured the formality and speech of the period without it being ponderous or disruptive—"Barnstable, who would never profess interest in a gentleman's correspondence, had discreetly departed."—while also differentiating the speech of the classes—"Then it could mean anything, guv."
It is the relationships that hold one to the story. With Lacey at the nucleus, he respects and is respected by those at all levels. He believes in helping if he can but is not gullible. With a leg lamed during the war, he knows his physical limitations and resents them as anyone would. The relationship with his family is lovely, with scenes of intimacy done behind closed doors. When disaster comes, introduced with a wicked twist, you feel his anguish and fear, offset by a determination to make things right. The inclusion of chess is wonderfully done.
Gardner knows how to keep a story moving and the reader involved. The pacing is brilliantly done, alternating between peaceful family scenes, and those of investigation followed by extreme risk. The addition of Eden allowed a perspective of slavery that was realistic and thought-provoking without overshadowing the overall plot while Eden's case is one of no one being who they seem.
At the core, Gardner writes about relationships, even eliciting some sympathy for Denis—"I did not consider him a friend. Until this moment, when I realized that if Denis were killed, I'd be sorry." In turn, Lacey is flummoxed by those who consider him their friend—"I'm damned if I know why. I have a foul temper." Eden studied me in amusement. 'You intrigue people with your honesty. They never know what to make of it.'" Ashley Gardner, whose real name is Jennifer Ashley, writes under other pseudonyms as well and is an incredibly prolific author. In an interesting way, her writing reminds me of Louise Penny.
"The Custom House Murders" is a terrific entry to a series that only gets better with each book. It is atmospheric, emotional, exciting, catches your breath, and warms your heart. One appreciates not having an abrupt ending, but one where the ends are neatly tied up and the door opened to the next book.
THE CUSTOM HOUSE MURDERS (HisMys-Gabriel Lacey-London-1819) - Ex
Gardner, Ashley – 15th in series
JA/AG Publishing, Nov 2020, 309 pp.