Book Review: Dance With Death

Dance With Death (Barker & Llewellyn #12) by Will Thomas
Mystery
320 pages
Expected publication: April 13, 2021, by Minotaur Books

June 1893. Private enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewellyn are hired to help protect the young Russian Tsarevitch, the future Peter III, who has traveled to London to attend a royal wedding. With him are his private security force, English security agents, and his mistress, the tempestuous ballerina Mathilde Kchessinska. When rumors that Peter has been targeted by the infamous assassin La Sylphide prove to be true, Barker and Llewellyn find themselves in the middle of an investigation that could lead to multiple international incidents, royal assassinations, and their own deaths if they make the wrong move. With old enemies coming back to haunt them and old secrets coming to light, the stakes for Barker and Llewellyn have never been higher.

Granted, by the time the twelfth book of any series comes around, it is a guarantee that the stakes have never been higher. After all, if a pair of detectives (ahem, private enquiry agents) never moves beyond investigating the random murder on a street corner, then how is the reader to know that their detecting skills have improved? So the stakes are increased and the social circles the detectives deal with are raised to the highest levels. Barker and Llewellyn have come a long way from their first case together, and while their influence and fame (or perhaps infamy) have increased exponentially, the basic factors that have come with them from book one to book twelve, Dance With Death, have remained the same: Cyrus Barker is a stoic cipher of a man with one foot in the past, a prodigious knowledge of the world, and a profound understanding of humanity, while Thomas Llewellyn is a wise-cracking young man with a finger on the pulse of all that is new in his Victorian era. It’s the combination and clash of these two personalities that makes Will Thomas’s books so entertaining and so compulsively readable, whether or not the reader figures out whodunnit halfway through, or not at all. It’s a peculiar aspect of the best mystery series: the dead body in the library is the reason for the story, but it’s not what brings the reader to the book in the first place. It’s the relationships between the characters, whether they’re main characters, side characters, or incidental, that make the whole story compelling, and not necessarily the mystery itself.

If a group of complex characters who feel like they’ve stepped right out of the Victorian era without picking up extraneous modern trappings is called for, then the Barker and Llewellyn books perfectly fit the bill. Whether it’s a young imperial prince from history, Thomas Llewellyn himself, or the unnamed bartender looking grouchy off to the side, Will Thomas’s characters are brimming with energy and feel so real that even the fictional characters seem like a researcher might be able to find traces of them in the historical record.

But if a tightly-paced historical mystery full of intrigue and danger is what’s called for, there is plenty to be had in Dance With Death, and much of it is based on actual historical events. While sharp-eyed readers of the series’ earlier books will guess the identity of the mysterious assassin, La Sylphide, there is another culprit who hired said assassin in the first place. And thanks to the knotty political alliances that wound around the intermingled royal families of late nineteenth-century Europe, virtually any of the players who make an appearance could be the one– for love, money, or royal power.

While Dance With Death is the twelfth outing for these intrepid investigators, it doesn’t mean that new readers will have no idea what’s going on. Will Thomas has a deft hand at summarizing relationships and hinting at past cases without stating whodunnit, so if reading book twelve inspires a new reader to go back to the beginning, the mysteries aren’t spoiled. And there is plenty for longtime readers to enjoy, too, with loose threads from previous installments being pulled back into the weave so seamlessly that one might wonder if Will Thomas had been planning this all along– especially after that ending.

Thanks to Will Thomas’s extensive research of the late Victorian era, 1890s London comes to vivid life in a way that feels fresh and exciting, without losing the historical feeling. London has long been a place where all the world’s cultures come together in unexpected ways while retaining its own peculiar sensibilities. Whether Barker and Llewellyn are stalking the dark alleys of Whitechapel or strolling through the manicured gardens of Kensington Palace, they never feel out of place or out of time. The ancient monarchies of Europe might have been in a precipitous decline by 1893, but in Dance With Death, Barker and Llewellyn are at the top of their game.


Thank you to NetGalley and Minotaur Books for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.


Buy the book here: Bookshop.org or Barnes and Noble

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