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Gentle Readers, This review discusses an historical novel based on one of Jane Austen’s least admired characters, Mary Bennet. Katherine Cowley manages to keep my interest in the growth of Mary in her self-confidence and talents.

The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception is Katherine Cowley’s third installment of a series of five books based on Mr and Mrs Bennet’s middle daughter. Cowley, in her three published novels, has captured Mary’s qualities and mannerisms, as well as her vulnerability and insecurities. In three novels Mary’s been transformed from a character living in the shadows of her vivacious sisters to a woman with the daring and tenacity of a spy. The background of the three novels is the Napoleonic Wars. 

Covers of Katherine Cowley's first three books

In the first novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, we met Mary sitting by her father’s deathbed alone at night. During this sad time, she anticipated a life of silent misery under the rule of her widowed mother. In the early hours someone knocks on the door. Enter Lady Trafford and her nephew Mr Withrow. Claiming to be a distant relation, she invites Mary to visit her in a castle along the shores of the Sussex Coast. Lady Trafford sees a silent strength in Mary and recognizes her isolation from her family, and her patience, and accurate observations. After a time as her guest, she invites Mary to become a spy and promises to train her. 

Author Katherine Cowley astutely endears the reader to Austen’s Mary, while pointing out the skills that this middle sister learned as she lived in her sisters’ shadows, for Mary’s strength as a spy lies in her natural state of invisibility. She’s a nobody. Anonymous and unnoticed. Therefore, she’s the perfect spy. She’s also a stickler for keeping copious and accurate notes. 

Oh, Mary’s still self-deprecating and annoyingly awkward, but these traits are familiar to the Austen reader. Her transformation as a double agent and her release from dependency on her family as an unmarried female makes sense. (Read my review of the novel in this link.)

In book two of the series, entitled The True Confessions of a London Spy, Mary travels to London to ostensibly visit the Darcys, who are residing in their splendid London townhouse. We see this couple through Mary’s eyes. Better yet, her younger sister Kitty is visiting as well, as is Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. Cowley’s descriptions of Mary’s interactions and perceptions with her relatives and acquaintances are developed in a satisfying way.  

In True Confessions Mary must wend her way to follow Mr Darcy’s strict rules for single female visitors to his house and the freedom she needs to spy on an assortment of gentlemen, one of whom is suspected of murder. The author writes a fascinating account of our revisit with a beloved Austen couple along with Mary’s growing self-awareness and as a spy. Better yet, Mary receives her first proposal!  In this novel the reader discovers that while Mary does not regard herself as particularly beautiful or interesting, some men found her fascinating. Cowley threads many historical details in this tale, while keeping the spotlight on our spy heroine.

Book Three takes us to The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, one of five novels she’s contracted to write for Tule Publishing. The third installment about Mary’s journey as a spy does not disappoint. In this book, she and the spy team of Lady Tafford and Mr Whitford are shipped off to Brussels, a city that plays an important part in the events prior to the battle of Waterloo. Mary’s honed her spy skills. She’s learned to shoot a pistol and has improved her disguises in a variety of roles and accents.

Cowley weaves fiction and history together in a way that satisfies both my love for historical novels and romance. Her Mary Bennet is written with great respect towards Austen’s character. 

As a wide-eyed and bushy tailed 20-something and in love with Jane Austen’s novels, I was aghast to learn she had written only six. In desperation to find another Austen, I turned to Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. My flat mate and I DEVOURED them. Now, in my (ahem) more mature age, I appreciate Heyer’s historical novels more than her light comedies.

Heyer’s An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride are considered to be so historically accurate that few find fault with her research. Cowley’s writing style is her own; like Heyer she weaves a romance and a mystery into an account of the weeks prior to Waterloo. The Book Tour’s media kit succinctly states:

Life changes once again for British spy Miss Mary Bennet when Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from the Isle of Elba. Mary quickly departs England for Brussels, the city where the Allied forces prepare for war against the French. But shortly after her arrival, one of the Duke of Wellington’s best officers is murdered, an event which threatens to break the delicate alliance between the Allies.

Investigating the murder forces Mary into precarious levels of espionage, role-playing, and deception with her new partner, Mr. Withrow-the nephew and heir of her prominent sponsor, and the spy with whom she’s often at odds. Together, they court danger and discovery as they play dual roles gathering intelligence for the British. But soon Mary realizes that her growing feelings towards Mr. Withrow put her heart in as much danger as her life. And then there’s another murder.

Mary will need to unmask the murderer before more people are killed, but can she do so and remain hidden in the background?”

While Cowley is spare in her descriptions, she offers more details than Austen. She includes important characters like Sir Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, Prussian General Blücher and William of Orange (later King William II of The Netherlands), who at the time of Waterloo was a Lieutenant-General. All interact with Mary in her various guises. I found Cowley’s details of Brussels with its many canals and the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball satisfying. She did not dwell overly long on the battle, but gave it enough pages to recount its horrors, just as she provided more than an amuse-bouche to Mary’s budding romance. 

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One last observation for purists: At the end of the book, Cowley acknowledges that for the sake of her plot she changed some historical facts. She lists them and mentions why the changes were made. Of Cowley’s three novels, I found this one the most satisfying and look forward to reading the remaining two Mary Bennet adventures.

Author Bio

Katherine-Cowley-225x300

Author Catherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when she was ten years old, which started a lifelong obsession with Jane Austen. Her debut novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her Mary Bennet spy series continues with the novels The True Confessions of a London Spy and The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception. Katherine loves history, chocolate, traveling, and playing the piano, and she has taught writing classes at Western Michigan University.

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