An Act of Villainy
by Ashley Weaver
Minotaur Books, 2018
There are two notes of foreboding sounded right away in Ashley Weaver’s new novel An Act of Villainy, one overt and one far less noticeable. The novel is the fifth sleuthing adventure of wealthy socialite Amory Ames and her smart, playful husband Milo, and as the action opens, it’s 1933 and the couple is leaving a performance of Death Comes at Midnight, a West End stage play they both found “sorely lacking in originality.” Much to Amory’s annoyance, her husband correctly guessed the solution to the play’s mystery right from the start of the evening, leaving Amory herself to seethe quietly that she didn’t see it too. “Perhaps you’ll guess the killer correctly next time, darling,” Milo teases, to which Amory responds, “It was too obvious. I was looking for a cleverer motive.”
This is a cheerfully cheeky way for a murder mystery to start. It’s a thrown gauntlet: the reader is invited to remember that the book opens with complaints about the predictability of a plot.
An Act of Villainy’s plot commences immediately: in the swell of people exiting playhouses, they run into their friend Gerald Halloway, an impetuous, charismatic former actor who’s currently bankrolling a new play, now in dress rehearsals. They chat amiably enough; they complain about the thin nature of so many murder-plots these days, and Holloway invites the couple to attend dress rehearsals of his new production. The pleasantries are darkened only briefly when Amory asks after the health of Holloway’s wife Georgina; Milo later informs his abashed wife that Holloway has cast his mistress, the actress Flora Bell, in his new play, making mentions of the wife decidedly awkward.
Naturally (again, one might dare to say predictably), it turns out that The Price of Victory is a troubled production: Flora Bell has been receiving anonymous threatening notes. One reads simply “Let your opening performance be your best. It will be your last” - which, given the time period, would peg the sender as any of a dozen London drama critics, but Amory immediately suspects a more nefarious explanation. And she can’t resist snooping; “Now that mystery was in my blood, I was finding it harder and harder to resist its pull,” she reflects. “It was a rather unsettling addiction.”
The proceedings unfold so smoothly that readers will almost forget that they’ve been challenged to find any of those proceedings rote. Is the letter-sender the same person who later graduates to far worse offenses? Is that person the aggrieved wife of Gerald Halloway? The gone-to-seed old actor in The Price of Victory? Any of three other distinctly predictable suspects?
In any case, readers will know to expect a thoroughly delightful hour of escapist fiction from the author of such winning books as A Most Novel Revenge or the excellent Murder at the Brightwell. And that escapism, the product of Weaver’s wonderful evocation of the carefree high society world of 1930s London, is somehow enhanced rather than undercut by the intriguing shadow in the background of our loving, wise-cracking crime-solving couple: Milo’s reputation as a philanderer. Over the course of these novels, readers have watched trust and forgiveness strengthen between the two, but there are still persistent reminders that complete unthinking peace isn’t yet possible on Amory’s part:
For years, I had ignored most of what was printed about Milo. I knew that much of it was exaggeration and even outright lies, but that hadn’t meant that there was no truth to any of it or that it hadn’t hurt me deeply to see the careless way he threw away his reputation, and mine with it.
And the other foreboding note struck right at the beginning of An Act of Villainy? It’s less pressing than the taunt about murder-plot predictability, but it, too, casts a shadow: we’re told that the story begins in June of 1933. Across the Channel and a world away, Adolf Hitler has only just come to power, and the war that will bring the glittering world of Amory Ames and her friends and family crashing to an end is only a handful of years away.
It’s so easy to feel affection for Amory and Milo and their cast of supporting characters that we hardly want to think of that brutal future intruding on them. Here’s to many more simple murders - predictable or otherwise - before the series ever gets that far.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for theNational, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.