Heiress for Hire by Madeline Hunter

May 10, 2020

B-

Heiress for Hire

by Madeline Hunter
April 28, 2020 · Zebra Books
Historical: EuropeanRomance

Triggers: Minerva is the survivor of an abusive relationship, and while there are no flashbacks, her trauma is well drawn. One character also witnessed/was complicit in a suicide and it’s fairly disturbing to read about. There is also attempted sexual assault of the heroine.

Heiress for Hire is, on the face of it, a proper Regency romp. We have two lively and intelligent protagonists, a large quantity of plot, plenty of humour, Dark Secrets, and excellent secondary characters. It’s enormous fun to read, and while it does go to some pretty dark places, and treats the traumas that the protagonists have suffered with seriousness, it is not an angst-driven story.

It is also a cosy mystery of sorts, though you need to be prepared for the fact that the principal mystery remains unresolved at the end of this book (I suspect we will find out whodunnit at the end of the third book in the series). Having said that…look, I am the sort of person who will check the last page of a book to make sure that everyone is OK, and I am VERY intolerant of cliffhangers, and I was engaged enough by this story that it was only the morning after my late night of reading when I woke up and went – hang on, we never found out [redacted]!

The thing is, there are so very many mysteries in this book that do get unravelled that the story somehow gets away with sneakily leaving the big one unsolved. If you are less easily led astray by other subplots than I am, this might frustrate you. Now that I’m actually sitting here in cold blood writing this, I’m frustrated by it myself.

But while I was actually reading the book, I had an absolutely fantastic time.

First, the opening of this story is – and I apologise* for the atrocious pun that I am about to perpetrate – quite stunning:

“Did you kill him?”

The voice spoke in his head vaguely, as if travelling through distance and fog. Not as the voice of his conscience, the way he so often heard the question. A different voice now. A female one.

“I doubt it. Help me here.”

“He looks dead to me.”

“I promise that he isn’t dead. Now, take this and hold it while I…”

A bit clearer now. Closer. So close it made his head bang with pain. Each word created a hammer blow. The more words, the more blows, and the closer they sounded.

“I should call Jeremy to come here.”

“We do not need Jeremy. See?”

Bam. Bam.

“Bad enough already, without that.”

“We are not the ones at fault here. Hold the lamp closer, so I can make sure it is safe. Wait, give the lamp to me… This is no ordinary thief, from the looks of him.”

“What are you doing with that?”

Bam, bam, bam.

“Bringing him around so I can find out who he is and why he is here.”

Bam–

The fog disappeared, washed away by an onslaught of liquid that forced him back to full consciousness. He tipped his tongue out to lick some drips on his lips. Not water. Wine.

…and it slowly becomes clear that we are in the (somewhat concussed) head of Chase, our hero, who has just been clocked over the head with a fire iron by Minerva, our heroine, after she caught him breaking into her house. The fact that he has broken into her house in order to deliver the news that she has just inherited ten thousand pounds from a Duke whom she has never met in her life is less reassuring than it might be.

From Chase’s perspective, everything about Minerva is suspicious, from the fact that Minerva is not her original name, to the fact that she has just inherited a large fortune from his deceased Ducal uncle, at the expense of his uncle’s blood relatives. The fact that his uncle’s accident looks a lot like murder only makes Minerva look more suspicious. And when you add in the fact that Minerva had recently separated from her husband when he was shot in an accident… well. There’s a reason Chase has chosen such an unconventional method to announce his news.

Minerva, for her part, is as frightened by the inheritance as she is delighted by it – she quickly realises that, as an outsider with a suspicious past and much to gain from the Duke’s death, she is the perfect suspect in his murder. You can’t prove a negative, so she sets about investigating the Duke’s death, in the hope of uncovering the true killer. Meanwhile, Chase has been tasked by the government with learning what happened, and, well, Minerva and Chase just keep on crossing paths.

There is a lot going on in this book, and the resolution of each layered mystery leads to a new one. Both the heroine and the hero are private investigators, though of rather different kinds, and so mysteries are meat and drink to them. But they both also have things from their own pasts that they are hiding and that they are ashamed of, and when you add this to the fact that their agendas are very much opposed, any sort of trust between them seems impossible.

And yet…Minerva, who believes herself to be sexually cold, and who certainly has no desire ever to put herself in a man’s hands again by marrying him, finds herself unexpectedly attracted to Chase. And Chase, who is inclined to see Minerva as a problem and a suspect from the start, is somehow equally drawn to her – there is this recurring theme where Minerva is disguised as a servant or a housewife or whatever and is sneaking around somewhere and Chase isn’t really paying attention only the servant has such beautiful, elegant hands – and oh, look, it’s Minerva again. This made me laugh.

The relationship between Chase and Minerva is lovely. They spark off each other, and from quite early in the book, it’s clear that Chase is impressed by Minerva’s abilities. When the romantic relationship between them begins to take off, it is very sweetly and tenderly drawn – Minerva carries a lot of trauma from her abusive marriage, and I absolutely loved Chase’s care and his matter-of-fact directness in making sure Minerva is with him and truly wants to be there at all times. I don’t want to go into more detail, because I don’t want to spoil this scene for anyone, but I found it heart-stoppingly intense and so very right.

Another thing I liked in this book was the theme of found versus blood family. Minerva was essentially abandoned by her family to an abusive marriage, but she has created a new family in Bess, her fiercely loyal maidservant, and Bess’s son Jeremy, who has grown up with them and is now a very perceptive and competent young man and kind of an awesome character in his own right. (I want the Jeremy spin-off story. Come to think of it, I want the Bess spin-off story. They are both bad-ass in their very different ways.)

In contrast, Chase’s family is from the highest ranks of the aristocracy and is basically a nest of vipers. Much of the book is spent trying to untangle who killed the former Duke, but his various siblings and nieces and nephews are more interested in contesting his will so that they can get the inheritance they feel they deserve than in finding out why the Duke died. Some of them are openly hopeful that one of the other cousins did the murder, so that the inheritance will be divided among fewer people. In fact, his family are the main suspects in the case, and Chase doesn’t even entirely trust those cousins whom he is closest to.

Differences in class are also highlighted. Minerva and her found family are very much working class – perhaps genteelly poor in Minerva’s case, but her loyalty is with the servant class, as they have, by and large, treated her better than the milieu to which she was born. We see a lot of the servant class in this book, and here we see tight bonds that are nonetheless not bonds of family, found or otherwise. There is certainly solidarity among the servants – they look out for each other, and the new servants are grimly pleased for the servants of the former Duke who took their generous pensions and abandoned their posts, much to the astonished dismay of the ducal family. But while there is a bond of class, the bonds between individual servants are strangely fragile – servants who have served in the same house for a long period may become close friends, but when the household is dissolved, so are the connections between them, and there is little contact.

This struck me as strange and sad, but on reflection, it is not dissimilar to modern workplaces in some ways – often the people you see every day for years and become friends with at work disappear from your life when you move to a different job or even a different role. (Tammy, if you are reading this, call me sometime! I miss you!)

I found Heiress For Hire a tough book to grade for the opposite reasons to the ones I usually have. I read it in the space of a few hours, and while I was reading it, my impression was that it was a fun, easy, somewhat addictive read, but without a lot of depth. I was going to write a brief review for Goodreads, but I found myself thinking about the themes of family and class, and the way Minerva’s relationship was handled, and just the way the various secrets and mysteries were unraveled or revealed one by one throughout the book, and the more I thought about it, the more clever I realised it is. I want more of that world and of these characters, and I will be looking for the next book in the series.

But at the same time… the more I think about it, the more I feel as though it isn’t quite playing fair to have a book with a great big central mystery, and to make your hero and heroine both be private investigators who spend the entire book investigating it and then… not resolve the mystery. They basically get as far as establishing that yes, there was a murder, and that the heroine didn’t do it, and then they are told not to investigator further so… they don’t?

Show Spoiler

Also, on reflection, it’s not so much that the hero establishes that the heroine isn’t the murderer as that he decides that he trusts her and that it isn’t in her character. This is satisfactory from a romantic perspective and from a character arc perspective (Chase has been betrayed by his gut feelings in the past, and so when he decides to trust Minerva, it’s pretty powerful), but less so from a mystery one.

I think the problem is that this book is trying to be both a mystery novel and a romance, and the rules of the game are different in these two genres, especially if your romance arc is very much about learning to trust again. I don’t want my private investigators to be sweetly trusting – the nature of the job is surely to be suspicious and demand evidence to support the facts. But equally, if my hero and heroine are both people who have had their trust betrayed in the past, it is extremely satisfying if they set aside their suspicions and have faith in each other.

It’s an impossible needle to thread, and the result is a novel that is half romance novel, half murder mystery, but the romance is the only part that gets properly resolved. And that really ought to be a dealbreaker, except that it does actually manage to be a satisfactory story without it. Until I start thinking about the story again and get frustrated.

It’s a bit of a conundrum – the same deep dive into this story that revealed its hidden depths also revealed what I think is a fairly significant flaw. The fact that the flaw managed to be so well hidden speaks to the quality of the writing. But…

Look, don’t write a mystery novel and then not tell me who did it, OK? It’s just annoying.

I think I have to give this a B minus. The B is because I really did like this book a lot, but I just can’t, I really can’t, give a full B to a book that is trying to be a mystery but fails to reveal at the end just exactly who [redacted].

* but not very sincerely

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