A review copy of this book was provided by Karen Odden
Historical mysteries are an often-overlooked sub-genre in today’s popular fiction. While the popularity of modern psychological, serial and true crime mystery books has been on the rise, it’s begun to feel like the same story is being told over and over. When the author (Karen Odden) reached out to me about A Trace of Deceit, I was thrilled – I’ve been feeling burnt out with mystery books lately and this felt like a breath of fresh air in an oversaturated genre. True to its name, A Trace of Deceit is a mystery full of deceit, beautiful art, and an immersive atmosphere.
A young painter digs beneath the veneer of Victorian London’s art world to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder…
Edwin is dead. That’s what Inspector Matthew Hallam of Scotland Yard tells Annabel Rowe when she discovers him searching her brother’s flat for clues. While the news is shocking, Annabel can’t say it’s wholly unexpected, given Edwin’s past as a dissolute risk-taker and art forger, although he swore he’d reformed. After years spent blaming his reckless behavior for their parents’ deaths, Annabel is now faced with the question of who murdered him—because Edwin’s death was both violent and deliberate. A valuable French painting he’d been restoring for an auction house is missing from his studio: find the painting, find the murderer. But the owner of the artwork claims it was destroyed in a warehouse fire years ago.
As a painter at the prestigious Slade School of Art and as Edwin’s closest relative, Annabel makes the case that she is crucial to Matthew’s investigation. But in their search for the painting, Matthew and Annabel trace a path of deceit and viciousness that reaches far beyond the elegant rooms of the auction house, into an underworld of politics, corruption, and secrets someone will kill to keep.
Karen Odden ’s strength lies in her world building – from the first page you can tell just how immersive the setting is going to be. Even though the book takes place in a large Metropolitan and diverse city like London, the setting is so well described that you can almost smell the oil in the street-lamps, and the paint in Annabel’s classroom. This level of immersive world-building is something you don’t often find in mystery novels, and it really complemented the plot and helped build investment in the story.
In terms of the mystery itself, it was a cozy mystery that was definitely a lot like a traditional murder mystery (a la Agatha Christie). The detective worked off of logic and actual facts – and didn’t make any wild leaps of logic. As the story progressed, every suspect had believable motive, backstories, and interesting complexity of character. I loved how heavily art was relied upon to solve the mystery – Annabel was critical in the investigation of her brother’s murder due to her education in the arts. The use of art and art history to solve the crime was something I’ve never heard of a book doing before and was definitely a unique plot element.
Not only does this book focus on the mystery of who killed Edwin (and stole the valuable painting he was working on), it also deals with the complex dynamics in Annabel and Edwin’s family. As the mystery unravels, all the clues that lead Annabel towards her brother’s killer, also paint a picture of what his life was like during his years away from their family. At its core, this wasn’t just a murder mystery, it was also a family drama. Annabel had to reckon with her memories, while she pieced together what Edwin went through and his point of view on the events of their childhood. The book successfully maintains the balance of divulging and exploring Annabel’s memories of her family, while also moving the murder mystery forward.
Overall, A Trace of Deceit was a great murder mystery, perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and historical fiction. The world building was impeccable, the mystery unraveled at a great pace, and the exploration of Annabel and Edwin’s past was emotional and humanizing. If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the first book in this series, A Dangerous Duet. If you’re looking for other phenomenal historical fiction, check out Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore. 4/5