2008, Historical Romance (1860s England and South America)
Brava, $14.00, 336 pages, Amazon ASIN 0758223676
I like historical romances in general and have a particular weakness for those with a side helping of the dark and gothic. From the cover blurb and the opening chapter, The Midnight Man promised to contain both. Unfortunately it delivered more flashbacks to the "I don't trust you," "I don't trust you either," and the "well-that's-settled...now let's go at it like wild things" bad old days of romance than most readers would find enjoyable. The adventures of the thinly crafted hero and heroine, as well as a truly offensive cast of villains made for a most unpleasant read.
As the story opens, the scandalous widow Helena Hartford indulges in opium at a notorious club. Her nephew is prepared to commit her to Bedlam on charges of moral insanity. However, after escaping from him, Helena finds herself with self-made businessman Nicholas Ramsay. The mysterious Ramsay intrigues Helena, even as she finds herself not trusting him. For his part, Ramsay seems drawn physically to Helena, but he obviously has some mysterious agenda. This initial setup seems promising and the couple has an interesting chemistry, but the book soon turned into a tedious mire as the story developed.
The ensuing relationship between Helena and Ramsay often feels unrealistic because the author permits the reader to spend so little time in the heads of her characters. We know that they initially distrust each other despite their strong physical attraction, but their interactions often feel as though they lack a certain something. Helena's insistence on going her own way and immersing herself in her art after her husband's death seems understandable, but readers never really learn much about her art or why she devotes herself to it. Her commitment as an artist never feels quite real.
Ramsay's life as a self-made success feels even less real. Attentive readers will see vague hints as to the source of his wealth, but a casual reading may leave some wondering whether his import/export work is that of a trader or something more sinister. In addition, while Ramsay has a motive for revenge against someone who treated him wrongly, his choice of target is not the most sensible. His revenge plan also suffers from the same shortcoming as Helena's art - it never feels real. Though this hero comes up with an extreme plan and acts to carry it out, one never senses that he believes in it deeply enough.
And then there are the villains. Not only are they e-e-e-v-i-l (then again, subtlety is not a strong point of the narrative), they seem to reflect more of a knee-jerk response against the Christian religion than any effort at imagination. Is a particular character affiliated with the church? Said character's soul is then black as darkest night and no sin is too great or small to heap upon him. As I mentioned before, shades of gray do not seem to be this author's forte, and in this case, it makes for a novel that is not only dull but also vaguely creepy and offensive.
The Victorian setting can, in the hands of the right author, lend itself to a delightfully eerie tale, but that did not happen here. While the cover and premise of The Midnight Man may appear appealing to those who like a touch of the gothic, I would certainly steer clear of this one - especially at the trade paperback price. Tales with a Gothic tone seem to be somewhat easier to find these days, and I would rather spend my hard-earned money on a well-written one.
-- Lynn Spencer
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