Dear Ms. Dreyer,
Years ago, while I was waiting for my luggage to appear on the airport carousel an old woman approached me. “Are you an American?” she asked. I said that I was. “Have you ever been to Scotland before?” I said I hadn’t but I was really looking forward to staying in Edinburgh. “I hope you’re not going to be doing one of those bus tours of Scotland in a day. You can’t see Scotland in a day.” I replied that I had no plans to do any such thing, but I was planning on taking a tour of Loch Ness. “Just be sure not to try to see Scotland in a day.” In the meantime, my luggage had finally appeared. I went to go fetch it and when I came back, the old lady had disappeared–as prophets, oracles, and Scottish witches are wont to do.
Of course, the bus tour to Loch Ness turned out to be a 12 hour tour of all of Scotland, not just a tour of the lake. By the end of it, I understood the old woman’s dire warnings. The problem with a 12 hour bus tour of Scotland is that you really can’t possibly see Scotland in just 12 hours on a bus. You are in a race against time and space–a race you cannot win. Every stop you make becomes a Sophie’s Choice between a brief glimpse of Scottish history and the bathroom. If you make the former choice, you are invariably herded back to the bus long before you’ve even gotten a good look at whatever interesting landmark you’ve stopped at. If you make the latter choice, you’ve missed whatever historical architecture you’ve come to see all together. Most of the bus ride is spent listening to a recording telling you about the macabre and massacre-ridden history of the Scots. Occasionally, you will be directed to look to your left or your right for a view of whatever-it-is. Just as you are craning your neck left-wise or right-wise with the sincere interest of a paying tourist, the bus will drive by it and it will be nothing but a blurred memory before you’ve even anticipated whatever-it-is’s approach.
Never a Gentleman, the continuation of the series begun with Barely a Lady, suffers from 12-hour-bus-tour-of-Scotland-itis. Just when things are getting interesting, just when perhaps a character is about to become a three-dimensional being, the plot rushes forward–zipping by the landmarks on its way to the next scene it will invariably zip by.
Never a Gentleman opens with great promise. But this promise does not last. Diccan Hilliard is a spy masquerading as a diplomat. He’s on his way back to London from Paris in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, carrying with him information about a clandestine group of traitors called the British Lions. The Lions have been funneling money to Napoleon as part of a larger plan to unseat the current British government and put the power of the nation into their own hands. These very conservative Britons feel the country ought to be run the right way–their way. They are not against England, so much as they are for an England that no longer exists and to which they wish to return. In short, they are a group of politically conservative fundamentalists who believe that the ends justify the means. Hilliard, while he has not learned who exactly constitutes this group, has learned what their plot is; it is a piece of information that is enough to put him in danger.
Miss Grace Fairchild is a soldier’s daughter. She’s spent her entire life following the drum. Her father, the General, has recently passed away and Grace has been living with her friend, Lady Kate Seaton. The two women are in Canterbury having received a note from Diccan to meet them there. When we, the readers, first meet Grace she is in the midst of an erotic dream–a dream which turns out to be rather too real. She comes awake in a bed at the inn in Canterbury only to find that her dream man is the very real Mr. Hilliard. If this is not quite bad enough, the door to the room bursts open and reveals a pack of the most gossipy aristocrats around. There is nothing to do but marry.
Of course, Grace wasn’t there on purpose and neither was Diccan. Nor was the note sent to Grace and Lady Kate a note written by Hilliard. They come to the rather swift conclusion that they were both drugged, which indicates that they have been cleverly trapped by some malignant conspiracy. Despite this and the threat of social ruin, Grace is reluctant to marry Diccan even to save both their reputations. All she desires is to finally move into her own home–a house that she inherited–and live a quiet country life. Understandably, she does not want to spend the rest of her life following another man, catering to his needs, especially as she has spent the first part of her life doing exactly that for her late-father. Alas, this dream of independence and security is not to be. Circumstances being what they are–and the sudden appearance of a rasher of Grace’s soldiering friends demanding Hilliard’s head–lead to a swift union.
This summary of events is really just the set up in the early chapters for the rest of the story. The majority of the novel is spent unraveling the mystery of who drugged Diccan and Grace, for what purpose, and how that is connected to the nefarious schemes of the British Lions. Diccan, in typical spying-hero fashion, has determined to do the honorable thing and save Grace by marrying her, but has decided to not tell her a thing about the reasons behind their drugging . . . to protect her, of course. Grace, in typical spinster heroine fashion, has determined to make the best marriage possible by sacrificing her own desires on the altar of Diccan’s idiocy. Yet, the problem with the book is not the plot, or even the characters’ emotional development, but the way it is executed. My frustration as a reader was centered on how the story’s pacing seemed to be at odds with how it wanted to use genre topes and clichés, and how they were actually used.
The way the story moved from point A to point B goes back to my 12-hour-tour-of-Scotland metaphor. Just as on a bus careening through the Highlands, bent on getting back to Edinburgh by 6:00 P.M. on the dot, so too did I have a similarly rushed experience reading this book. I was immediately interested by the first paragraph of the opening prologue and by the length of the book itself. Both seemed to me to promise a more epic feel–something that was so common to old skool romances but that is often lacking in more recent books. Yet, the promise of the opening was never realized in the subsequent chapters. I’ve been trying to find a passage that illuminates this experience but it isn’t something that happens in passages, in quotations, but in the overall arc of the narration. Which leads me to the second part of my frustration.
The use of clichés is not in and of itself a problem for me. That is, I could read a thousand stories about rakes and spies and spinsters and evil French conspirators ’til Doomsday and be perfectly happy about it. The problem isn’t these particular tropes or even that they are often used in a very conventional way. This is what genre does. It is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. The pleasure of reading genre, like pleasure of reading a strictly metered poem, is in seeing how the author–constrained as they are by the limits of the form they are using–makes those very constraints and clichés new. Go to town with the cliché, I say! No, what was disappointing were the glimpses–the glimpses I saw, face squashed against the tour bus window–of really intriguing and varied uses of these clichés. “Stop!” I wanted to shout. “Go back! Let’s linger here for a moment and explore this!” Alas, for me the bus did not stop.
The particular example I have in mind is the way Ms. Dreyer used Diccan’s mistress, Minette as a foil to both Grace and their marriage. On the one hand, Minette is the usual mistress fare. Now normally mistress does one of three things: she disappears with little to no fanfare, she plots the heroine’s downfall in some way shape or form, or she becomes friends with the heroine. In this case, Minette is somehow connected to the nefarious plot of the British Lions and Diccan is forced to continue his relationship with her in order to gain information about the specifics of that plot. One night, Grace is brought to a house and forced to view her husband having sex with his mistress through a floor length two-way mirror–thus ensuring Diccan doesn’t know she’s there, and Grace’s compliance to the machinations of others.
Due to the nature of the occupation of spying, Diccan finds out that Grace witnessed this scene and confronts her about it. Although he feels sick about this when he initially learns that she witnessed not only him betraying her sexually, but saying cruel things about her, when the confrontation comes he does not behave in the least sorry or guilty. This is ostensibly to maintain his cover:
He was swaying a bit, as if the ground were uncertain. “I have just learned that you were at Half Moon Street last night.”
Disappointment bore her down. “Did Kit tell you?”
“Braxton? You’ve talked to Braxton about this?” He stepped right up to tower over her, his eyes glowing with a peculiar light that sent chills racing through her. “Do you want to tell me why you shared our private business with Kit Braxton?”
She sat absolutely still, afraid she would unleash all of her pain on him. It would be pointless and humiliating, and solve nothing.
“You haven’t answered me, Grace,” Diccan sneered, his words a bit slurred. He’d been drinking, Grace surprised. She couldn’t imagine Diccan Hilliard ever being less than in perfect control.
Well, expect the night he’d made love to her. Maybe he simply couldn’t abide her sober.
The conversation deteriorates into Grace asking him if he is a spy and Diccan refusing to give her any kind of a straight answer. She finally gets a confession out of him about the death of Bertie Everham, which we witnessed in the prologue:
“On your honor?” she asked, stricken.
Diccan glared at her. “On my honor. Now will you leave it be?”
She couldn’t answer for a long moment. Something felt wrong, and she couldn’t think what it was. But she had just suffered one too many shocks and felt buffeted by it.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, surprising herself.
Sighing, Diccan dragged a hand through his hair. “What will it take to satisfy you?” he demanded. “What do you want me to do?”
And before she knew she was going to do it, she told him. “All those things I saw you do to your mistress last night?” she said, trembling with the enormity of her audacity. “I want you to do them to me.”
Which he does. What’s remarkable about this scene is that Diccan’s infidelity opens up an erotic world for Grace in which to ask for sex. But what troubled me about this scene was that, while it was doing something unusual with the trope of mistress and marital infidelity, I felt that there was not sufficient build up to it to give me any concrete idea of A) why this was Grace’s reaction, B) why Diccan complied, or C) how Diccan could keep up the pretense of his masquerade afterwards. It seemed to come out of the blue, without any markers or indicators prior that would allow me to feel that this was the organic result of Diccan and Grace’s relationship. I wish that her request here had felt more a part of Grace’s character. I would have wished that, though surprising, it had been a fluid aspect of the rest of the plot. Instead, I felt it was one of the many abrupt and disjointed changes from trope to another without explanation–as if I had failed to read a few paragraphs here and there that would have explained such a transition.
The next day Grace runs off, mainly due to the memory of the sex clashing with the memory of his cruel remarks as well as her suspicions that her abigail, Babs, is also sleeping with Diccan. When Diccan discovers she is gone, he takes off after her, mistress and nefarious friends in tow. The scene that follows feels as if it exists in world disconnected from the erotic scene just before. It was a sudden instantaneous glimpse of a different sort of use of the trope of mistress that with equal suddenness went back to a more standard use of the trope.
The disjointed nature of Diccan and Grace’s relationship is ultimately, the biggest problem with this book. I never got a sense of the world of their emotions, of their characters. All I got was passing glimpses of interesting people, blurred impressions of the possibilities of a romance. Nor did I feel that they ever connected to each other. They seemed as much as me to be passengers on a hurtling, time driven tour bus as I. The mystery, the spying took precedence in the plot as much as it took precedence for Diccan over his marriage to Grace.
These brief glimpses of interest were not enough to overcome the sense that I could be anywhere in Romancelandia, rather than in the specific landscape of Diccan and Grace’s relationship. I wish I could have seen more than I did, but alas for the tourist who is shunted brutally from site to site. I would try another of your books with the hope that these glimpses become panoramas. . . C.