Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark - Review

What kind of book is this title, exactly?

The book is described by the publisher as “Historical romance with a twist - a little bit of gothic suspense, a paranormal element that turns out not to be, and a whole lot of fun!”

I would tend to take issue with “romance” as a main descriptor. In my opinion, it does not fit the parameters of a genre romance. I don’t think I can say more without spoilering.

Since I’m not an expert on the mystery genre, I had to do a little detective work myself to make sure I’m using the terminology correctly (as a side note, I learned that the term “potboiler” does not refer to the simmering tension of a mystery plot….)

However, as a romantic mystery, I quite enjoyed it. Set in the late 18th or early 19th century (not specified exactly, but wigs for men were on the way out of style), it took me a little bit of getting used to the cozy mystery style compared to my usual fare. My aborted attempt at reading Pride and Prejudice comes in handy here, since I recognized a couple of similarities – one, obviously, the era, and two, the technique of conveying almost all the information through dialog and very little through action.

It also suits the parameters of a gothic novel, which no, has nothing to do with the 1990s goth-kid stuff. If the title itself doesn’t convince you, the name of the hero, The Marquess of Darkefell, should cover it.

Why does it matter? Well, when I pick up a genre fiction piece, I have different expectations, depending upon which shelf I find it. So, in my inexpert opinion, what we have here is a cozy gothic romantic mystery. Within the expectations that might be prompted by that description, I think Lady Anne succeeds admirably. A number of dire incidents surrounding Darkefell Keep intertwine like a dance, coming together and apart, and Lady Anne has her work cut out for her in untangling all the threads, while juggling her attraction to the mysterious and possibly murderous marquess.

I quite liked Lady Anne’s character. Independently wealthy, the daughter of an earl, unmarried, plain but not unattractive, intelligent and no-nonsense, she’s the kind of woman that goes on to become a formidable eccentric dowager character in her golden years. Here's a snip I particularly liked:
As a girl of eighteen, she had been bullied by her mother and many a seamstress into unbecoming dresses by the score. Her Season had been one long, mortifying sequence of spring green, frothy confections, mauve monstrosities, and pink, plumed headresses....A woman must have utter confidence when dealing with seamstresses, she learned, for the tribe seemed to delight in foisting on their clientele ugly but expensive frills and furbelows, especially on plain women.
Some things never change.

She is not initimdated by Darkefell, which comes as a refreshing, though disconcerting surprise to him. The romantic element between these two is nicely done, simmering on low through the whole book. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a romance without some fairly explicit lovemaking scenes, and it was kind of nice to see sexual tension handled in a more subtle way. Made for some really memorable kisses.
If he would be insolent, she would be daring. His breath was warm on the naked skin of her wrist, where he pushed back the edge of her sleeve. He pressed his lips to her pulse, thumbed her palm, then released it; her heart, after thudding heavily, raced once more as her glove fell, disregarded, to the polished marble floor."
Whew, that's as hot as any striptease. So the romantic element is low-key but well done. The chemistry is there and I like the characters.

The mystery is solved in the classic Agatha Christy parlor denouement. I couldn’t quite decide whether this was annoyingly cliché and predictable (although I did not predict the “answer”), a tongue-in-cheek homage, or just the way things are routinely done in this type of book.

On the downside, I thought the secondary characters were pretty annoying, especially Lydia. Perhaps it’s a standard thing in mysteries to have a cast of dislikeable characters, the better to evoke suspicion, but I thought there were smoking guns laid upon a lot of characters’ tables that were never really dealt with in a satisfactory way. For example, Darkefell’s younger brother John is just weird. He behaves strangely through the whole book, I thought, and it was not addressed at all. Howl is apparently the first of three books, so maybe these threads are taken up later. Which I could live with, I guess, but it still feels a bit unsatisfying at this point.

Language usage deserves a mention here. While it took me a chapter or two to get used to the slower pacing and the ratio of dialog to action scenes, I think the reason I was able to get engrossed is that the language amused and entertained me, while staying true to the character and style. Most of the narrative is in Lady Anne's point of view, and it's full of rhetorical questions and Sherlock-Holmes-style deductive reasoning. Simpson is an experienced writer and it shows in the tightness of the plotting and language.

Overall, if you enjoy Agatha Christie, Victoria Holt, and historical mysteries, this is well worth a read.

Edited to add:

Love Romance Passion
- very positive

Long And Short Reviews - "Enthralling, powerful, wonderful "

Genre Go Round Reviews
- "...a howling success" (well, somebody had to say it.)

1 comment:

Marg said...

This is one that does sound interesting to me.


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