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-.
I enjoyed this book, but I agree that the villain was just dropped in at the end of the book with very little explanation.
The villain was discussed quite a few times as the eccentric inventor who funneled money into Mason’s campaigns, then he was suddenly unmasked as the villain.
I thought Jane’s dishonesty actually served to show that desperate people often do desperate things. She held herself out as being morally superior to Crispin, yet she did what she had to do to escape her family. Also, one important point missing in your review is Crispin’s guilt about losing his younger brother. I think the way his family silently blamed him, without saying so in words, also made him live up to his father’s worst expectations.
Finally, I kept expecting Crispin’s missing ring to show up, but I don’t think it ever did.
I usually love Duran’s books, but I rated this a C on goodreads. My thoughts were:
–Throughout the book, almost to the very end, Jane is constantly reminding herself that she’s not going to stay with Crispin because everything is really just a lie (no matter how much she might care for him) and surely when he regains his memory, he’ll leave…Crikey, that constant reminder every couple of pages got old!
–Once Crispin gets amnesia, he falls quickly in love with Jane and I cannot figure out why, because she’s a Debbie Downer. Not that she doesn’t have reason to be negative and skeptical, because she does. But I want some romance! I want something there for him to love, and she’s just so serious and internal and distant and constantly in her head…I want them to enjoy the romantic journey at some point, and that just doesn’t happen for me.
–I could not buy the sudden transformation you mentioned from bad guy to good guy. Also, I was thinking, uh-oh, if Crispin regains his memory, imagine the internal conflict! But man, was I disappointed on that front, too.
This was a solid A for me and the amnesia trope is my least favorite in romance. I suppose I can see how the political dealings may have dragged a bit for some readers. I liked it and it felt very true to the characters’ passions and their historical period… The 1860s were in many ways similar to the 1960s, a time of social change, technology leaps, and political upheavals.
@Kim: That’s a good point about the brother’s death – I’d kind of forgotten that when I wrote the review, honestly. The family dynamic before the estrangement definitely seemed to be that Crispin was a fuck-up, and I’m sure the brother’s death had something to do with that, however unfair that was.
@Claudia: I see your point about the upheavals of the era; I just wish it hadn’t been portrayed so broadly as “one side good, the other side evil” even if IRL I might essentially agree with that assessment. The lack of ambiguity ended up highlighting Crispin’s unlikely transformation.
@Dallas: The new-old Crispin seemed so naive to me, I wonder if he fell in love with Jane because he wanted to believe that he wouldn’t have married her without love. I don’t know. Their romance did work for me in some ways; it was the other stuff that didn’t work as well.
Jennie, was your main issue that you didn’t buy crispin’s transformation to hero from villain?
I guess he never felt too much of a villain to me… :)
I have to come out as a huge MD fan. My favorites are Written On Your Skin and A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, plus A Lady’s Code of Misconduct now. Many people have issues with the heroes in the prior novels so what can I say… I might be in the minority but all three worked for me.
Anyway, I cannot wait to read the Lord Lockwood book…
@Jennie For all Crispin’s faults, I don’t think the “bad” Crispin would ever have married Jane for convenience. Without love, her inheritance would have been the big reason, and neither version of Crispin cared about her wealth. When Crispin showed Jane the burned canvas at the end of the book, he told her he saved it from the fire because he was developing feelings for her the night he asked her to spy on her uncle. Crispin went on to say that he also knew that he would have to change to be with her, so that’s part of the reason he went to that house where he was attacked. Therefore, I don’t think Crispin wanted to believe that he wouldn’t marry Jane without love, it was more that he felt Jane was only telling him part of the story.
Sorry for the double response. There’s icon place to delete it. :)
@Claudia: I really did see Crispin as pretty villainous before. I mean, I think he had limits, like he wouldn’t murder someone, but his ambition was sort of the central part of his persona.
I’m a great fan of her too, though looking at my ratings it seems like I gave her earlier books higher grades, maybe. Still, she’s an author that I expect to be good so that plays into my expectations and ultimately my grade, at least a bit.
@Kim: It’s interesting that both you and Claudia saw pre-injury Crispin as more ambiguous/sympathetic than I did. Maybe I missed some subtle clues? I pretty much saw his as surprised to discover that Jane had some depth, and perhaps as developing a sexual interest in her. But I felt like we saw too little of him before the attack to really get a sense of him as anything other than a man motivated almost solely by ambition. (I was surprised when his sister related, late in the book, the kindness and concern he showed for her after her fiance jilted her. It was one of the few signs of decency I saw in “bad” Crispin.)
I was surprised as well by the number of people who thought Jane “took advantage” of Crispin by using the means HE procured for her to get out of a situation where even her life was vaguely threatened by the uncle. Jane was genuinely, well not exactly “afraid” of Crispin before, but justifiably trepidatious. Remember that “kiss” from him that was really more like an assault? Jane putting his name down didn’t faze me in the least and it certainly didn’t alter my opinion of her. No one expected him to have amnesia. If he survived, all Jane probably thought she was doing was setting herself up for him to publicly expose her. He was so powerful and ferocious and completely without sympathy Jane would have been crazy not to keep reminding herself what he was really like even when he woke up kind and nice.
I also didn’t think it that odd that Crispin would be so taken with Jane. It’s clear he finds her attractive and someone in a vulnerable position would naturally assume their spouse is their closest ally. Especially someone like Crispin who (atypically) had no interest in marrying for money and would assume it was a love match.
Crispin’s amnesia was another interesting idea for me. If something traumatizing happened to someone, but they lost the memory or memories of it, wouldn’t it change their behavior? I don’t think it’s crazy to say that events in life can embitter even good people. By the time Crispin relearned what had “turned” him before he was in a much better place in his life, far removed from the situation emotionally and it was like learning history for him.
I also found the characters quite distinct and memorable. While they are certainly each of a Meredith Duran type -he is focused, ruthless and very handsome, she is learned, smart and has been encouraged to think and act in some ways “like a man” about “mens’ business” but the whole political storyline was quite unique. I thought it was interesting and for anyone who doesn’t understand the workings of the British system it gave them a quick peek into it without “lecturing”.
I also wanted to mention Crispin’s sister who was a very charming and surprisingly deep secondary character. I thought she was going to be all fluff, but she was lovely and played a nice part in Jane and Crispin’s story.
I read so many novels where it seems to be the same settings with balls and gossip and recycled dialogue I find Meredith Duran’s books very refreshing and always unique.
@ Jennie: I actually didn’t find pre-amnesia Crispin ambiguous/sympathetic. It was a nice change of pace to watch him evolve from villain to flawed hero. As Christine stated, since Crispin was such a villain in the beginning of the story, I didn’t believe Jane was taking advantage of him by faking the marriage. In fact, I think pre-amnesia Crispin would have admired her initiative.
I thought we learned a lot about what made Crispin choose to be the bad son in his scenes with his family. The Burkes loved their son, but were forever comparing him to the other siblings and finding him wanting. His ruthless ambition in a different political party didn’t help matters. The amnesia gave him the chance to reset all his familial relationships. When his memory returned, Crispin liked that he had a second chance with his family.
I also think that Jane’s ability to fool Crispin in his pre-amnesia days intrigued him. By even going to that pub and telling Jane that the Masons were going to trap her into marriage with Archibald was out-of-character for Crispin. As you noted, he thought he was an expert at reading his opponents, but he dismissed Jane as someone weak and without any depth. That intrigued him. So to ensure he wouldn’t develop feelings for her and that Jane would continue to keep her distance, he forced that kiss on her. We learn at the end of the book, that the kiss shook Crispin as much as it did Jane, but for different reasons.