Allardyce wrote books set mostly in the mid 18th century and the closest description I can come up with is that they are trad Georgians. Her style is older and more reminiscent of Sheila Bishop. Usually there is some kind of mystery to clear up but since the reader knows “who dunnit,” solving this is not the purpose of the book. I first read this one about 25 years ago and lost most of my copies of her books in a move a few years later. Thank God for the internet that has allowed me to find new copies. I enjoyed the book then and am glad to say that it’s held up over the years.
Fran Morley lives in tiny, quite St. Barnabas, a coastal town that rarely has anything happen in it. She’s 25 and unmarried, not because she’s plain, but because she can’t see herself marrying any of the boring men there, as her younger sister did. Then two events occur to spice up the hum drum town. A 9 year old chimney sweep who’s been convicted of theft and sentenced to be hanged escapes and the notorious highwayman, The Moonlighter, begins stealing from the surrounding homes.
Fran is outraged at the case of the thief. He’s only 9 and for some reason his case strikes a deep cord with her. She knows she can’t stand by and see this horrible injustice continued when the real criminal is the master chimney sweep who treats his boy workers so inhumanly. Her feelings aren’t shared by her family or either of the two interesting men who have moved to St. Barnabas, the coolly repellent Marquis of Standish or the London novelist Mr. Tom Strickland.
When the opportunity arrives for her to help the little boy, she does, in the face of the Scottish Bow Street Runner who has arrived to catch both criminals. And totally against his will, she drags Mr. Strickland into the game as well, even though she’s getting more and more convinced that he is the notorious Moonlighter.
I enjoyed the descriptions of the upper middle class life in an 18th Century English town (Allardyce mainly confines her characters to the middle class). Fran was fun as the rebellious young woman who won’t go quietly into the staid life that her mother wants for her. She acts like a person of her time and sex, as do all the other characters. Tom is a bit of a mystery. We get some POV from him but I would have liked to see more. Allardyce gives you background info on the lives of the chimney sweeps and the poor of the time without turning it into a dreary lecture. The romance is a tad rushed but she only had 220 pages to work with and a lot of threads to tie up. Overall, I’d give it a B+.