Alissa Johnson


A Talent for Trickery (2015), A Gift for Guile (2016), A Dangerous Deceit (2017)


A Talent for Trickery (2015)

A-Talent-for-TrickerySet in England in 1872

I somehow missed writing this one up last month, so here it is now.

I am not sure about the accuracy of the term “Gentleman Thief Taker” since the thief-takers were replaced by Bow Street in the mid 1700s, and Bow Street was absorbed into the Metropolitan Police by 1839. Would someone really have dredged up a term over 200 years old to describe the hero?

Regardless, that is pretty much the only qualm I have about the story, and it’s a minor quibble, since this is fiction.

Owen, Lord Renderwell received his title for rescuing a kidnapped Duchess, except that he had been working with the notorious thief, Walker, and it was Walker who had done the actual rescuing.

Walker is a man of morals, who works for the crown and does what he believes to be right according to his ethics.

I quite liked him.

Owen recognized his incongruent feelings as the same he’d experienced at age nine, when his sister Eliza had convinced him it would be great fun to hurl a stone at a wasp’s nest. It was the delicious thrill that came from succumbing to the allure of a very bad idea.

Charlotte (Walker) Bales has been keeping her family together since her father’s death forced them to change their name and relocate to the countryside. Charlotte and her sister Esther have done everything they could to protect their brother Peter, who had been only four when their father died, from his legacy. So the appearance of Owen and his men threaten to spill all their secrets.

“God help us, he is the fattest of pigeons. A nearly perfect mark— well-heeled, trusting, and too proud and forgiving to make a fuss when he discovers the knife in his back.”

“Peter is not stupid. Nor is he an angel.”

“Not at all. Lord knows, there’s no one less pleasant to be around than Peter in a temper. But his general nature is one of generosity. He loves without reservation. If you tell him the truth now, when he falls madly in love with some little twit at sixteen, he won’t be able to stop himself from sharing every single secret in that enormous heart of his. And then it’ll be blackmail and threats. Men and women pounding on our doors demanding the money father stole from them.”

I also really liked Charlotte, who had very complicated feelings about both Owen and her father.

Though she deeply resented the work her father had done, she didn’t resent her memories of him.

But what I liked best about the story was the theme of redemption.

He had given no thought to the possibility of redemption for her father, no credit to the notion a person might change for the better. Will Walker had been a black-hearted scoundrel and, really, what else was there to say?

Charlotte desperately wants to the redemption of her father, but fears that she does not deserve the same, for the work she did for her father.

And that father was complex and fascinating–I liked the slow unveiling of his actions and character and how he may have loved his children, but that didn’t stop him from using Charlotte.

He took hold of her hand gently and turned it over to study the wrist. His thumb caressed the palm of her hand. “Has this happened before?”

“Manacles? Yes, but—”

“No, not manac—” His head snapped up. “Wait. Yes? Yes? Who the hell put you in manacles?”

“My father. He felt it was important I know how to get out of them.

The unfolding story and history were also fascinating, as the characters discovered the various things they had kept hidden from each other.

It was a pleasant read, and I look forward to the next book.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

Re-Read: August 2017

Set in England in 1872

Owen Renderwell is the Gentleman Thief-taker. The rescue of a kidnapped duchess made his name–and the names of his companions, who soon quit to become private investigators.

Charlotte (Walker) Bales is the daughter of one of the most talented thieves and scoundrels in London, but after her father’s death, fled with her sister and young brother to the country, where no one knew them, to try and rebuild their lives as the Bales family.

Eight years and not a thing has changed,” she drawled. “I vow, I feel a young woman of two-and-twenty again.”

Things had changed. Drastically, in his mind. They’d been friends once. But her father’s death had shattered her world, and for that, it seemed she would never forgive him.

Several thefts and a murder have brought Owen back to Charlotte, because she was her father’s aide in encryption and… other things.

One of the many excellent things about this story is how Peter, the younger brother is portrayed.

Peter was fourteen. He still secretly (he thought) slept with the small embroidered blanket she’d purchased during his infancy, and he ogled girls like a randy old man. He was a good boy. He truly was. But sometimes he raged over nothing or seemed to become indignant over everything.

Exactly like a fourteen year-old boy.

Another thing I especially like is that although there are serious misunderstandings between Owen and Charlotte, they aren’t stupid misunderstandings, and when it’s realized that they are misunderstandings, things are cleared up and that stupidity is past. It doesn’t mean either trusts easily, but that lack of trust is easily comprehended.

It was a distressing predicament to stand at the crossroads of justified fury and complete remorse with no clear sense of which direction one ought to step.

And they’re fun together, especially when she’s still mad at him.

“Insightful of you,” she said with a glance over her shoulder.

He stepped up beside her. “You needn’t sound stunned. Some people consider me a man of exceptional insight.”

Other people considered him a barbaric reprobate and a disgrace to titled gentlemen the world over. She looked at him with great pity. “Might these people be your mother?”

His mother belonged in the category of “other people,” but he appreciated the barb nonetheless.

Also, she’s not stupid.
(H)he looked at her, expression cool and unyielding, and mouthed the word, Stay.

Which was both insulting (she wasn’t a hound to be ordered about) and unnecessary. Of course she was going to stay. Where was the sense in going downstairs?

I quite liked this–despite the boinking.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

A Gift for Guile (2016)

A-Gift-for-GuileSet in London in 1872

This is the second book in the Thief-Takers series, and follows the second sister, Esther, and the private investigator, Samuel Brass.

Esther has sneaked into London, and is caught at underground by the Samuel Brass, who ruins the meeting she was getting ready to have.

Samuel Brass sees it as his personal mission to keep Esther safe, because, he tells himself, she is the sister of the wife of one of his best friends.

“Anyone who goes into places like Spitalfields when they have a choice otherwise is an idiot.”

“That is unfair. There are decent, honest, hardworking people who live there.”

“A great many. But their combined innocence does not render the cutthroats less vicious.

One of the things I particularly like about this story is how sensible Esther is, and how it always takes Samuel (and the reader, to be honest) aback when she is reasonable and sensible.

She set the book aside and frowned at him thoughtfully. “Out of curiosity, why haven’t you stationed guards outside my door?”

“Do you think you need them?” She shook her head.

“Do you?” It wasn’t so much that she needed them as that he wanted them for his own peace of mind.

She shrugged when he didn’t immediately answer. “I wouldn’t make a fuss over it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If it would make you feel… I don’t know”— she began to wave one hand around as she searched for the right words—“ like a properly responsible gentleman, seeing to the safety of the helpless lady”— she waved her hand some more—“ or what have you, then, by all means, hire a guard or two.”

But that’s not the only reason I like Esther. I like her because she has struggled in the past, but is slowly becoming, as she puts it, more.

No one person’s good opinion should mean so much that another person should feel compelled to change who they are to obtain it.”

She ignored the voice, long since accustomed to the fear that she wasn’t really wanted, wasn’t quite good enough for anyone. That fear had been at the heart of her determination to work with her father and her terrible need to seek out the approval of others. She’d been so desperate to prove the nasty little voice wrong.

But, it’s also a fun little romp.

Samuel and Esther stepped closer to investigate the admittedly rather large, but definitely very dead, rodent.

Samuel glanced over his shoulder. “You screamed because of a dead rat?” The girl was a Londoner. This couldn’t possibly be the first one she’d come across.

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I stepped on it a bit. In me bare feet.”

Next to him, Esther gave a little shudder. “Ew.”

“Aye, mum.”

These are just fun stories, even if they do have boinking.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

Re-Read: August 2017

Set in England in 1872

The second book in the Gentleman Thief-takers series tells Esther’s story–that of a girl who was used by her scoundrel father as dainty and surprising henchman, and who kept her secrets from everyone–including her sister.

Now she is looking for her father–her true father rather than the man who raised her. The man whom her mother ran off with for several months prior to Esther’s birth.

Samuel Brass was labeled the Thief-Taker Almighty by the press in the case that made his name and led to the death of the man everyone thought of as Esther’s father–and cause Ester and the rest of her siblings to change their names and hide in the country.

For all his many, many unfavorable qualities, he remained a clever, well-connected gentleman accustomed to working in secrecy. And he was a man she could trust. Not unequivocally— she didn’t trust any man unequivocally— but she was fairly confident that he was, in a general sense, a reasonably decent human being. It was more than could be said of most people.

They also get on each others nerves, as Esther thinks Samuel disapproves of her past and wants to control her, and Samuel feels an overwhelming need to protect a woman who refuses to listen to his advice.

“I’ll not take orders from you.” She didn’t take orders from anyone. “You may give orders, if you like, but I’ll not promise to follow them.”

“Orders that don’t have to be followed are called suggestions,” he replied in a bland tone.

“Then I shall agree to take your suggestions under advisement.”

“I don’t see why this should be a point of contention,” she said, reaching for her wine. “You walk about London openly every day. There must be dozens of men who would like your head on a platter. Why is it you are allowed to thumb your nose at danger, but I am not?”

“It’s different.”

She took a long sip of her drink and set the goblet down slowly. “Is that a euphemism for ‘because you are a woman’?”

“No.” Possibly. He might give it some thought later.

Samuel is not good at words. No, that is an understatement. He is laconic because he quite frequently manages to say the wrong thing. Like noting to Esther that he hadn’t realize she hadn’t kissed before, and failing to understand why that upset her. I love this bit.

“Honestly, there isn’t a right or wrong way to kiss.” He reconsidered this. “Apart from a few obviously ill-advised techniques, but—”

“Such as?”

Bloody hell, he should have known she would ask. “I don’t know,” he muttered and wracked his brain for an example. Any example. “Don’t recite the alphabet. Don’t hop on one foot. Don’t spit.”

“Don’t hop on one foot and spit?” Gone was the blush of embarrassment, the averted gaze. She goggled at him, all astonished amusement. “You’ve found this to be a common mistake amongst the kissing population, have you?”

“Of course not—”

“Because if that is the sort of kissing you’ve been experiencing, you really ought to have given me a standing ovation.”

“It is not—”

“All the way back to the hotel.”

“I haven’t—”

“Three curtain calls worth at least.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“And tossed roses at my feet,” she continued.

I really like Esther.

But I also like that they’re open about their foibles and willing to talk about things.

“Have I been clumsy again?” he asked.

She was beginning to wonder. “Maybe.”

“Ah.” He scratched his jaw and eyed her cautiously. “Are you perhaps taking offense where none was intended?”

“Possibly.” That was always a possibility.

“Right. And do you suppose you could tell me what I might have done wrong so we can decide together if I need to fix it?”

Not without humiliating herself. But she couldn’t see any way around it.

But what I like best about Esther is that she recognizes her weaknesses but doesn’t allow that to stop her when she is threatened–she fights back and does her best to get herself out of her situation rather than waiting for Samuel to come rescue her.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

A Dangerous Deceit (2017)

That was completely unexpected. In a very good way.

Gabriel Arkwright is the third Gentleman Thief-taker, and like Samuel, he has a past he doesn’t talk about. He’s also glib and very good at becoming who he needs to be for each case.

Jane Ballenger lives in an isolated country house hiding both her disability and her past.

She wasn’t a clumsy woman. Her faults were legion. She was easily distracted. She was rude. She lacked a proper sense of humor. She was hard of hearing. According to some, she was a proper idiot. But, as a rule, she could put one foot in front of the other without making a spectacle of herself.

For as long as Jane had been aware there was something wrong with her, secrecy had been her one and only consideration. The need to be honest had never presented itself.

And that is what made this story. Yes, the mystery was interesting, but Jane’s hearing problems were fascinating, as were the way she was treated because of those problem. Let me be clear, she isn’t deaf, not really. Here is part of the author’s note at the start of the book (so I’m not giving anything away).

When I set out to write the character of Jane Ballenger, a woman with central auditory processing disorder, I knew I was going to run into some interesting obstacles.

Although it has gained some attention in recent years, CAPD is still not a particularly well-known disorder. It’s also not something I could give a name to in a book set in Victorian times, when the condition was not recognized.

Jane’s reasons for hiding this problem from Gabriel are well-founded, but they also place the both of them in significant danger multiple times.

She looked from Gabriel to the tied mare. “This horse isn’t for me to ride, is it?”

“No, cheese fork amen to furlough.”

She whipped her gaze back to his. Cheese fork? Surely not. “I…”

But there is far more to Jane than that, of course. First and foremost is her love for the couple that has taken care of her since she was ten. There is also the fact that her fears are completely justified, given both her past and society at the time. So although she knows her problems are placing her in greater danger, just glibly giving up her secrets is not an option.

Which is what makes me like the story so well. Gabriel, of course, has his secrets, which are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Jane. Which is both a strength and a weakness in the story, since Gabriel’s issues feel almost tacked into the story to provide some parity. But I didn’t really care because I found Jane so interesting.

I highly recommend this book, and you do not need to have read the first two books to enjoy this one.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by the author