Dear Ms. Joyce,
I've been reading your books since The Veil of Night came out. I thought it was a bit above average for a debut, but conventional. The two books that followed were somewhat stronger in my opinion. All three showed a talent for conjuring an atmosphere, and main characters of diverse personalities and backgrounds. But in the first half of your fourth book, Voices of the Night, you have for the first time succeeded in riveting me.
Fog pressed down upon the city, smothering it, pulling the smoke down from the chimney pots to swirl in the streets under the weight of the brown and breathless sky. It was a black fog, a killing fog, and Maggie and the other chavies had coughed up soot every morning that week when Johnny kicked them awake.
This bit of description on page one was the first clue I was reading something truly different. Here was a London not often seen in the romance genre, a tough, sooty metropolis in which the weak often perish and even the strong don’t easily survive.
When Johnny, the leader of her gang, orders Maggie of King Street to prove herself to him by killing his rival, she shoots and kills Johnny instead. Danny O’Sullivan agrees that he owes Maggie his life, but tells her he intends to even that debt.
Four years later, Charles Crossham, Lord Edgington, is trying to secretly bring about the successful debut of an illegitimate young woman named Lily Barrett. His plans are foiled when his sister Millicent publicly humiliates Miss Barrett. Afterward, Millie agrees to a bet with Charles: if he can find a young woman of an inappropriate background and pass her off as a lady, Millie will not only support Miss Barrett in public, but get their mother to sponsor her as well.
To that end, Charles, a patron of the opera, goes to watch the auditions there on the same day that Maggie, now nineteen, tries to land a part. Recently fired from her job as a singer in a dance hall, Maggie doesn’t have many options. Danny now controls the London crime world and if Maggie doesn’t find another position quickly, she will have no choice but to bow to his pressure and return to a life of crime.
Maggie’s future isn’t the only thing at stake; so is her ability to continue protecting the “family” she has cobbled around herself: several people her age and younger, known as her “chavies” or children, whom she liberated from their gang when she killed Johnny.
If I've read one book with an impoverished heroine who protects orphans I have read a dozen. But Maggie’s relationship with her “chavies” does not feel clicched, in large part because she can’t fully protect them from harsh realities. One of them is a prostitute, another a teenaged mother addicted to gin, and a third is a violent young man who desires Maggie. And Maggie herself is hardly a long-lost heiress or fallen-on-hard-times gentlewoman. She literally grew up on the streets, with an education from the school of hard knocks, and she views strangers with wariness.
Neither rakish nor altruistic, Charles begins the book burdened by the legacy of the previous profligate Barons Edgington even as he is used to a life of privilege. He loves but doesn’t actually like his peevish mother and spoiled sister, and his relationship with them is strained. The meaninglessness of high society life troubles him, but he’s not quite ready to upset his well-ordered world.
When Charles and Maggie meet at the opera, it’s a study in contrasts. Charles is struck by Maggie’s acting ability, her tenacity and her hollow thinness, Maggie by Charles’ glowing physical health, which seems almost luxurious to her. She thinks that nothing good can come of an association with him, but when Charles offers her the impersonation job, residence in a house he owns, and an income that could save her and the chavies from Danny, Maggie accepts the challenge of being transformed into a lady in a short period of time.
But this book is not a retread of My Fair Lady. Rather than focusing on a charming transformation, Voices of the Night gets its power from its attention to the gulf between Charles and Maggie, the perceptiveness with which they view one another, and the way each is fascinated by the glimpse the other presents of a world than is so different than their own. There is a wonderful scene in which Charles visits Maggie’s flat and seeing the poverty in which she and her friends live both embarrasses and fascinates him. His invasion of Maggie’s space is in some ways a more intimate kind of penetration than sex.
Charles and Maggie’s first sexual encounter feels both inevitable yet almost accidental, as Maggie assumes that sex is one of her duties and Charles doesn’t stop to consider that she might make such an assumption at first. Despite visiting that much-trod path wherein the hero discovers the heroine’s virginity as he takes it, the scene is a potent one, in which the differences in power and social class between Maggie and Charles become almost palpably erotic.
I did ask myself how and why Maggie remained a virgin after nineteen years in the London slums, but I let that go because she is far from wide-eyed and isn’t above trading sex for survival, or using it to bind Charles to her. Charles realizes that an involvement with Maggie could sabotage his bet with his sister and complicate his life, but he can’t get Maggie out of his mind. And Maggie, who tells herself that she won’t allow her relationship with Charles to cloud her pragmatism, finds that that’s easier said than done.
Your writing feels suppler and more relaxed in this book than it has in the past, as well as atmospheric and rich. The characterization is nuanced and layered. The first half, in which Maggie and Charles negotiate the terrain of their very different social classes, was difficult to stop reading. Most of the second half, in which the focus shifts to whether Maggie can evade what Danny O'Sullivan wants of her and pull off her masquerade in polite company, was quite good as well, the impersonation scenes wonderfully fraught with tension.
But as the book nears its end, it wobbles. The threat presented by Danny becomes the main obstacle to Charles and Maggie’s happiness, and this is not as compelling a conflict as the difference in their backgrounds. Some things come to light about Danny that raise more questions than they answer and make his character seem improbable to me. The scene in which Maggie agrees to marry Charles feels predictable and standard, in a book that is so unconventional otherwise. Finally, even after reading the epilogue a few times, I’m still confused about how Maggie and Charles decide to deal with her background when they marry.
I wish the last forty or so pages of Voices of the Night were stronger, but those things I liked about it I like so much that I give it an A-. I hope you continue developing your craft and taking your characterization deeper from book to book, because I know I will be reading more of your writing.