Three Nights of Sin

Anne Mallory
May 2008, European Historical Romance (1820s England)
Avon, $5.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 9780061242410

Grade: B
Sensuality: Hot

I generally don't mind writing C reviews, which is a good thing, as I've written more than 180 of them. But after several Cs in a row, coming up with ways to say "this book was average" can take its toll. That's why Three Nights of Sin was an unexpected treat. Everything about it looks average - from the bland clutch cover to the unremarkable title but it's an entertaining, well-written book.

Marietta Winters contacts Gabriel Noble because she is desperate. Her brother Kenny stands accused of murder, and not just any murder; he was found beside the mangled body of a woman who was the latest victim of a serial killer known as the Middlesex murderer. The Bow Street Runner on the scene accused him of the crime, and now he is imprisoned and the Winters family is in ruins. But Gabriel Noble has a reputation for solving problems (in return for either money or favors), so Marietta comes to him for help.

At first it seems she has made a devil's bargain. Gabriel has little use for society women, and since her other brother has virtually bankrupted the family, Marietta can only offer favors as payment for Gabriel's help. Clearly, he has the upper hand. He shocks Marietta by ensconcing her in a private home with no live-in servants. He wants for both of them to be able to come and go as they please without attracting notice, and he has already identified Marietta's chief asset: She has the type of face that can blend in anywhere. He buys her clothing suitable for a variety of stations (particularly light skirt and shop girl) and they set about making inquiries. They visit the scene of the crime, get the lay of the land, and talk to the principal players. Meanwhile, Gabriel calls in favors from others so that they can visit Kenny in prison, and delay the trial.

During one of their forays in a victim's home, they discover a diary. Though no names are named, it seems clear that she was an aristocratic woman, part of a circle of friends who used their elevated station as a way to entice and coerce young men into performing acts against their will. Marietta finds herself both fascinated and horrified by the diary, and part of the allure is that Gabriel clearly does not want her to read it. As their investigation progresses, it seems equally clear that Gabriel has more than a passing acquaintance with the principal players on both sides.

At the same time, Gabriel and Marietta are drawn to each other. Not in an annoying "can't wait to bed you" way that we've all seen a thousand times before both are completely surprised by their feelings. When they first have sex, neither thinks that love has anything to do with it. Gabriel is attracted to Marietta, but can't understand the pull he feels. Marietta chooses to sleep with Gabriel willingly, knowing she'll be ruined, but figuring that her social capital is so low that it hardly matters. That they gradually mean more to each other almost goes without saying, but little about their romance is predictable. They have huge obstacles to overcome; proving Kenny's innocence is one of them, but their own class barriers and Gabriel's feelings about his past are also significant.

At this point in my romance reading career, it's not at all uncommon to open a book and see immediately how it will progress. Sometimes, one even gets frustrated with characters who refuse to submit to inevitable, obvious solutions until the bitter end. Consequently, I tend to give major credit to books that avoid obvious problems and easily surmounted obstacles. I would definitely put Three Nights of Sin in this camp.

What's more, both main characters are genuinely sympathetic, believable, and interesting. Marietta has been dealt a pretty crappy hand, with weak-willed family members who are completely unable to help themselves. Yet instead of moping around feeling sorry for herself, she acts doing everything she can to improve her family's situation. Gabriel is almost irresistible. He's a self-made man with a mysterious past, contempt for the aristocracy, and a soft spot for servants. He falls in love with Marietta unwillingly, but once he does he is completely loyal to her.

The only quibble I had with this book is one that I've had with similar books before. Kenny is of the aristocracy. Though he's on the fringes, he is still well-born, and hence more likely to receive preferential treatment (and even the benefit of the doubt) than he is to be thrown into a cell. Should a trial take place, he would have to be tired by a jury of his peers (which in his case would mean fellow noblemen). I had considerable trouble believing that matters could have progressed so far simply because he was found at the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the scheme of things, that's a fairly minor complaint. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised by this book, and impressed with both the plot and the characters. It stands out among the legions of similar-looking Avon releases, and is definitely worth reading.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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