The Merchant of Death picks up right after The Two Gentleman of Altona, when Henry gets a call from Viola asking for help. We know from the first book that Vi is someone Henry cares about deeply, but here we quickly get up to speed and learn that she is his twin sister who lives in a care center. Viola had a bad accident at age 16, for which Henry blames himself, and now has the mental age of about an 8-year old. When she tells Henry that something sinister is going on at St. Albinus, Henry isn’t sure if she is just confused or if something is really wrong, but he is not about to take any chances with his sister’s safety and jumps in to investigate.
Mac should have known better than to believe Henry would stick around, but that doesn’t mean he is not disappointed to find the empty hotel room. Once again Mac manages to track Henry down, this time finding him in the middle of a do-it-yourself investigation of St. Albinus. Henry has decided to impersonate his sister, complete with wig and dress, in order to find out more about what is really going on with a mysterious death of one of the patients.
Despite Mac’s best efforts, he can’t convince Henry to leave the investigation to the authorities. And although he knows better, Mac reluctantly agrees to step in and provide some investigative assistance. Which he really shouldn’t be doing, especially now that he is under investigation for the shooting in Altona. Not to mention, the revelation of the not quite clear cut death of a big drug honcho Mac put behind bars, or the confidential informant who claims Mac is doing drugs. With the Office of Professional Responsibility breathing down his neck, Mac should be keeping his nose clean, but somehow he can’t stay away from Henry.
As Henry investigates further it becomes increasingly clear that the folks at St. Albinus are up to no good and before he knows it, his life is in danger. Mac is going to do whatever he can to help Henry, but with OPR determined to prove his wrongdoing, Mac may end up needing Henry to help him in return.
Oh, I am really enjoying this Playing the Fool series you guys! I totally fell in love with Henry in The Two Gentlemen of Altona. He is such a lovable con man, and I couldn’t help be charmed by all the trouble he gets into (and out of) with his endearing personality and quick wit. And Mac was such a perfect straight man, trying so hard to be firm and responsible, but falling for Henry’s charm nonetheless. While that first book was an introduction to both men, and a series of clever cons as Henry tries to stay a step ahead of Mac, this story has more of a long con kind of feel. Henry is determined to figure out what is going on at St. Albinus and I loved seeing him jump right into to figure it out, dress and all. And of course it is a bad idea, but I love that he does it anyway, and somehow manages to crack the case.
While the first book introduced both characters, here we really get to know the real Henry (or actually, the real Sebastian, his actual name). We learn the secret behind Viola and what happened to her, and why Henry feels so responsible. She is without question his number one priority, and it becomes clear to us, as well as Mac, that so much of Henry’s life and his decisions are guided by his need to care for and protect her. We learn more about his past and see more of his insecurities. I loved how this story really opens us up to Henry. Yes, he is still the clever charmer, but we begin to see more of his fears and anxieties and the soft underbelly as well.
In addition to the mystery of St. Albinus, this second story also carries on the larger plot thread of Mac’s FBI investigation and the death of the dealer he put away. That case is what made his career, but now the guy has died under mysterious circumstances. Not to mention that someone is setting Mac up and the OPR investigation has turned from routine into a witch hunt. And somehow people connected to Henry are caught up in it. We don’t resolve these issues in this second book, but this story does a wonderful job of setting us up for the final book in the trilogy. It really comes together in such an exciting way, and I love how the authors combine the plot of this story with the larger series arc in such a wonderful way.
Even with all the excitement, the heart of this story is really Mac and Henry. I love how at the start of the series, we see them on such opposite sides. Henry is the clever trickster looking out for himself and loving to poke and prod at the more stuffy Mac, who is only trying to do his job. But here we slowly see more meeting in the middle as we see the more serious side of Henry, the part that is determined to protect his sister, and ultimately Mac as well. And Mac is softening a bit, losing some of his stuffiness, trying to be friendlier, and breaking the rules just because he cares for Henry so much. And seriously, when Mac gets all pumped up to see Henry and starts singing Eye of the Tiger in the car? Loved it. (Not to mention when the guys get it on when Henry is dressed in drag. Hot.)
So yep, I really loved this one and continue to love this series. I can not wait for the final book to see how it all resolves. This story is just the right balance of fun and craziness, mixed with excitement and suspense, and a lot of heart. Totally recommended.