REVIEW: A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran
Dear Meredith Duran:
It’s probably not a good sign that when I sat down to write this review, about a week after finishing the book, I at first could remember nothing about it. Not the characters, not the plot. Nada. It did come back to me when I pulled the book up on my Kindle and saw the h/h’s names, so it’s not like it was completely forgettable. But still, not an auspicious start to the review process.
The story opens in London in 1860. Crispin Burke wakes slowly and painfully in his bed, with his worried family around him. It soon becomes clear that something has happened to him, but Crispin doesn’t remember what. As it turns out, Crispin has lost the past several years of his life entirely; he believes he should still be studying at Cambridge. He soon finds out that he was mysteriously assaulted and suffered a head injury from which he was at first not expected to recover. He also finds out that he has a wife, a woman whom he doesn’t know or recognize.
The action then shift to three months earlier; Jane Mason (the “wife” of the previous paragraph; more on the quotation marks in a moment) is sitting in the corner and quietly embroidering as a gathering of her uncle’s political cronies swirls around her. At one time, Jane had been raised to participate in political discussions and share her thoughts:
But her aunt and uncle, who had become her guardians after her parents’ death, took a different view. In company, they expected Jane to hold her tongue and look shy. She was the golden goose, after all, whose inheritance funded this household. Treasures were not paraded brazenly before those who might covet them. Eligible gentlemen, in particular, were not invited to Marylebigh – save Crispin Burke, of course, but he did not signify. For all his breeding, he was no gentleman.
Jane’s aunt and uncle expect to marry her off to her odious cousin Archibald, in order to continue to control her fortune. Jane is desperate to avoid that fate. She conceives a (rather hare-brained, but needs must and all that) scheme to elope with an elderly stable master; Crispin thwarts that plan, for his own reasons. Pre-head injury, Crispin was known as a ruthless and controlling politician with aspirations to be Prime Minister. Though he is political allies with Jane’s uncle, Crispin wants her to spy on the man for him. In return, he’ll procure her a fake special license – all she needs to do is find a groom. She’ll then have control of her fortune and be free of her grasping relatives.
You know where this is going, right? When Crispin is attacked and word comes that he’s not expected to survive, Jane seizes her chance. She fills in the name of the groom and presents herself to Crispin’s family, gathered around his putative deathbed, as the grieving secret widow.
Now, I had some qualms about this. On the one hand, Jane really didn’t think Crispin would live, and she was in a pretty sticky situation, so in a sense, what was the harm? On the other hand, the whole business was undeniably distasteful. It became a bit of a source of anxiety for me, waiting for Crispin to discover the truth.
This was even more true because Crispin 2.0 is a very different man. He doesn’t bear any resemblance to the cold, pragmatic cynic who Jane and others had known before. Crispin himself is bewildered as he learns to know the man he once was – one who had allies but not friends, and who ruled by political intimidation. One estranged from his family. One who – Jane tells him – had entered into a marriage of convenience with her, a cold-blooded affair meant to advance both their interests.
Here, again, while I understood Jane’s reasons for not coming cleaning with Crispin, and while I realize she had no real assurance that he wouldn’t return to his previous personality when and if he regained his memory – still, I judged her. The new Crispin is of the defenseless puppy-dog sort (that’s perhaps overstating it a bit, but not by much). He has lingering effects from his injury – he fears getting lost in his own home, and because he doesn’t want word of his amnesia to get out, he needs help identifying the visitors who come to see him. His vulnerability and dependence on Jane make her withholding of the truth more poignant and painful to read about.
I had an issue, too, with the very unlikely nature of Crispin’s transformation. It takes a considerable suspension of disbelief to buy that a conk on the head would turn a villain into a hero. I tried to understand it in the context of Crispin reverting back to his younger self, but my understanding of younger Crispin was fuzzy. It was clear that his father and brother, particularly, never really liked or respected Crispin that much. His sister is his champion and seems to have been so even when he was “bad” Crispin. He had a romantic disappointment that lead to an estrangement with his father, and that seems to have gone a long way towards turning him bitter and cynical. But it doesn’t fully explain why new and improved Crispin suddenly champions the rights of parole for prisoners, an issue he’d been working hard against before his injury. Outside of A Christmas Carol, I guess, I find overnight transformations in character hard to swallow.
The resolution of the mystery – who attacked Crispin? – was convoluted and involved the introduction of an over-the-top villain who doesn’t even appear in the story (he may be mentioned once in passing?) before the dramatic denouement. It was…odd to me, I guess, and thus not entirely satisfying.
The resolution between Crispin and Jane was more successful, as each grapple with the choices they’ve made and what that means for a future together. I did like the characters, and even, in some ways, the conflict, for all that I had misgivings about Jane’s actions and Crispin’s transformation. But overall, A Lady’s Code of Misconduct was a bit of a disappointment for me, in part because I have relatively high expectations for a Meredith Duran novel. I’m giving this a B-.