Dear Ms. Wildes:
You are an author whose prose I’ve enjoyed in the past. Your 2009 novel, An Indecent Proposition (reviewed here by Jane), was a sexy fun read and I found the first book in the Whispers of Scandal series, Ruined by Moonlight, entertaining (My review is here.) Your latest, A Most Improper Rumor, however, left me disgruntled. Not only did the plot baffle me, the emphasis the novel places on physical beauty was so great, it pulled me out of the story.
This book begins with Lady Angelina DeBrooke, “a raven- haired beauty with crystalline gray eyes,” calling on Lord Heathton–Benjamin Wallace–to request his help. Ben and his wife Alicia are a Regency Nick and Nora who, in Ruined by Moonlight, discovered a nefarious plot to destroy gorgeous young ladies by decimating their reputations.
In A Most Improper Rumor, Angelina is the most notorious woman in the ton–she’s called the Dark Angel. Both of her husbands died and, when the second one perished from the same “mysterious ailment” as felled the first, Angelina was accused of murder. The evidence against her wasn’t strong enough to convict her at trial, but now, at twenty-four, she’s a social pariah. That, however, is not what she requires help with. Angelina is madly passionately in love with a man who wants to marry her. Angelina is terrified that if her love affair with Christopher becomes known he too will be killed.
Ben quickly realizes the villain ultimately responsible for Angelina’s problem is the same villain he and Alicia became aware of in Ruined by Moonlight. Given that Angelina’s first husband died six years ago, five years before the case in Ruined by Moonlight, Ben deduces that this reputation wrecker has been taking down diamonds of the first water for some time. In both cases, the ultimate villain whom I will henceforth refer to as the Big Bad learns of some lesser villain whom I will henceforth refer to as the Baby Bad. Each book has a different Baby Bad.
In Ruined by Moonlight, the Baby Bad wanted to force her brother to marry so that she could be free to stop running his household. The Baby Bad connected with the Big Bad via a newspaper ad and then left the matter in the Big Bad’s hands. The Big Bad arranged for the heroine–a breathtaking blonde–to be locked in a stone room with the biggest rake in Christendom. This should have ruined the blonde but didn’t because the rake married her. Angelina’s case is far worse–here the Big Bad has killed–and Ben realizes the Big Bad is really really bad. I recount the plot of the first novel because it’s integral to making sense of this one. A Most Improper Rumor doesn’t work well as a stand-alone.
The Big Bad/Baby Bad thing didn’t work for me in Ruined by Moonlight and nor does it in A Most Improper Rumor. Ben and Alicia work to discover and thwart both Bads each of whom has a different motivation. The identity of the Baby Bad is obvious to anyone who has ever had a hinky friend. The identity of the Big Bad can’t be discovered–it’s the basis of the series–so Ms. Wildes gives the reader information, none of it very interesting, about the profile of the Big Bad.
The Baby Bad in A Most Improper Rumor isn’t really evil. The Big Bad not only is evil, he/she begins to target Ben and Alicia which kinda makes sense but doesn’t really work with the “I Ruin the Reps of the Young and the Beautiful” MO. At several points, the plot was so far-fetched I felt as though I were reading Dan Brown novel.
Ms. Wildes does a better job with characterization, at least in the case of Ben and Alicia. I really liked Ben and Alicia in Ruined by Moonlight. In A Most Improper Rumor, Ben and Alicia are a bit less appealing. Alicia is predictably pregnant which makes Ben spend lots of time thinking about the nature of his love for his wife and her baby bump. Alicia spends lots of time musing on how profoundly Ben loves her even though he has a tough time saying those three little words. Their sex life, which underwent a charming transformation in the first book, isn’t especially diverting here. It’s nice that a married couple is seen burning up the sheets but that alone isn’t enough to make their relationship especially compelling. It’s also nice that Ben who began the series with conventional ideas about the role of one’s wife now sees Alicia as his partner and intellectual equal. Their interactions are my favorite part of this book.
I am not as fond of the Angelina/Christopher piece of the tale. For starters, everyone in the book is so hyper-aware of Angelina’s beauty that it almost becomes silly. When she first calls on Ben he thinks, “She was entirely too beautiful to refuse.” When Alicia hears Angelina paid Ben a visit, her first response is to say, “When one of the most beautiful women in England calls on your husband, a wife is surely allowed to ask why.” Christopher who to his credit reminds himself regularly how much he loves Angelina for more than her form is still routinely distracted by her beauty whenever the two are in the same room. Furthermore, given that Angelina and Christopher are already deeply in love when the novel begins, there’s very little tension in their relationship. They struggle with the threat against them which is so external it does little to illuminate any internal facets of their coupling.
Ms. Wildes is a strong writer and in A Most Improper Rumor her prose is clean and clear. The setting however isn’t memorable and the descriptions of women in particular seem stolen from Maxim magazine. A Most Improper Rumor irritated more than it entertained. I give it a C.