In The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Harvard grad Student Eloise Kelly manages to unmask the Pink Carnation, the most elusive spy in British history. In the course of her research Eloise discovers a new deadly adversary for the Pink Carnation-the Black Tulip-deadliest of french spies. In order to uncover the identity of this dangerous enemy of the Pink Carnation, Eloise returns to the home of Colin Selwick, a man who provokes her ire and piques her interest, to peruse his archives for the answer. The letters in the archives take us back to England in 1803 where a courier of the Pink Carnation has been brutally murdered. Few people know the whereabouts of the Pink Carnation but those who do are now in grave danger as the Black Tulip seeks to hunt the famed English spy down and put him/her out of commission for good. One such person is Lady Henrietta Selwick who is in possession of a secret code book which she uses to decode messages from the Pink Carnation. The other is Miles Dorrington, agent of the War Office enlisted to track down the Black Tulip. As Henrietta and Miles try to discover the identity of the French agent they grow closer but neither realizes that they are in grave danger and the Black Tulip wants to find them as much as they want to find the wily spy.
What an adventure this book was. The Pink Carnation did not feature as prominently in this one as in the first installment. This book belonged almost entirely to Miles and Henrietta both of which I ended up liking immensely-Henrietta for her pluck and Miles for his well meaning doofiness. I loved watching them deal with their new found feelings for each other while trying to solve the Black Tulip mystery. Miles is a trained agent of the war office and it was quite fun following him as he tried to uncover clues to the Black Tulip's identity and escape from the shadow cast by his best friend (and Henrietta's brother) Richard who was a famous spy for England. Henrietta imagines herself something of a spy too but she blunders into many awkward and dangerous situations while testing her abilities. Each chapter starts with a phrase out of Henrietta's code book and it's meaning which I thought was a nice touch.
Willig throws in several likely suspects who may or may not be the Black Tulip which left me guessing til the end. Is it the slightly creepy Lord Vaughn who seems to have taken quite an interest in Henrietta? The beautiful and mysterious Marquise de Montval who has taken an interest in Miles? The opera singer newly arrived in town?
In the parts of the book that take place in the present the relationship between Eloise and Colin Selwick develops more as well. Eloise tries to figure out if Colin may be genuinely interested in her or is just using her as a shield to stave off the advances of Joan, the haughty neighbor from a nearby estate. I am slowly warming up to the parts of this series that are set in the present although as with the last installment, I don't like them nearly as much as the parts set in the past. They seem to drag in comparison. Another problem area in the last book were the love scenes which veered off into bodice ripper territory without warning. I think the love scenes and the build up to them were much better in Masque which made the writing seem much less disjointed than in Secret History.
I did run into a few bumps in the road while reading the most glaring of which was when Eloise who is a Harvard grad student, refers to Lady Jane Grey as the Seven Days Queen. Lady Jane Grey was the Nine Days Queen! This actually made me cringe a bit. How can you have a character that attends one of the most prestigious colleges in the US and who has research skills good enough to uncover a spy that no one else was able to unmask and then have them make an error like that? I was soon able to overcome this little inaccuracy and move on to enjoy the story. Also Willig created a fantastic character in Miss Gwen in the first book, yet she was nowhere to be found in this one. Bring back Miss Gwen!
Overall I think I enjoyed Masque of the Black Tulip a bit more than I did Secret History of the Pink Carnation. I am planning on continuing this series to the end and after gobbling up all of Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia books these are becoming my go to books for fast and fun reads.
This book is from my personal library