No Decent Gentleman
by Patricia Grasso
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-22434-9
It's too bad that I'm not writing this review at the end of December because then I could say that this is the worst book I've read all year. As it's only the end of February, all I can say is that I hope it's the worst book I come across all year.

The very first line in the book gives the reader a clue that this is not going to be a pleasant experience.

An author has only one shot at a great first impression. Many current romance authors are aware of the importance of a first line. "Your latest mistress is creating a sensation back in London, Masters." (Amanda Quick, Mistress) "They meant to kill him." (Julie Garwood, Honor's Splendour) "Believe me, it is a definite shock to discover that one's father was a blackmailer." (Joan Wolf, The Gamble)

So what's the opening line of No Decent Gentlemen?

"Holy hemlock," eighteen-year-old Sabrina Savage muttered in a barely audible voice.

"Holy hemlock?" What is this? A Batman and Robin adventure?

Unfortunately it's an indication of what's to come. This book doesn't improve after that beginning. The plot is absurd, plodding, and riddled with historical, legal and even religious inaccuracies. The characters are unappealing. And "holy hemlock" is liberally sprinkled throughout the story.

Sabrina Savage and her younger sister Courtney are the adopted daughters of the earl of Abingdon. Although Sabrina is convinced otherwise, his death in 1815 is believed to be a suicide so he cannot be buried in consecrated ground. Her neighbor and determined suitor, Lord Briggs, refuses to back her in her confrontation with the vicar. It is only with the arrival of the duke of Kingston and his devastatingly handsome heir, Adam St. Aubyn, the Marquess of Stonehurst, that Sabrina gets help in tolling the earl's death knell.

Sabrina has never known that her father and the duke were best friends along with Prince Adolphus. The duke informs Sabrina that she and the Marquess have been betrothed since she was a child and that the prince has helped arrange that she will inherit the title from the earl. Sabrina is now the Countess of Abingdon in her own right.

Adam is, in fact, the nephew of the duke. His mother, the duke's sister, is the mother of the Ottoman sultan, and she has sent him to England to be educated and to save him from imprisonment, the fate of younger sons. The duke has adopted him and made him his heir.

Sabrina is upset that she has never been informed of the betrothal (even though her mind becomes occupied with carnal thoughts whenever she sees him) and insists that the Marquess promise to help her overturn the ruling of suicide. The late earl's will stated that Sabrina and Courtney should not wear mourning and should have a London season so off they all go. Sabrina is worried that their being illegitimate will affect their acceptance by London society, but, of course, they are a phenomenal success.

The Marquess agrees that if Sabrina falls in love with another he will release her from their betrothal. Sabrina, however, is increasingly attracted to the handsome Marquess, and her interest is caught by the hint of mystery surrounding him. Together they will uncover the secret of the earl's death and Sabrina's origins.

Sabrina is a late twentieth century heroine in early nineteenth century dress. Whenever she gets upset, she goes into the kitchen and bakes up a storm. (In one scene she has gingerbread baked in no time at all.) She's also one of those irritating heroines who denies she has any interest in the hero then behaves like an experienced courtesan around him. (In the gingerbread scene, she licks whipped cream off the Marquess's finger. Some reluctant virgin.) She's also not too bright. Because Adam has informed her that he's from the Mediterranean, even though he has Arab servants, Sabrina jumps to the immediate conclusion that he must be from France.

The Marquess is both unrealistic and unlikable. The exiled Ottoman prince background is ludicrous. It is revealed that he is a Muslim and prays three times daily in a locked wing of his house. (In fact, Muslims are obligated to pray five times a day.) His behavior towards Sabrina borders on the insulting. He intrudes on her privacy repeatedly, and his conversation frequently features double entendres that would be improper around any decent woman. He may be the richest man in England and handsome as sin, but he's a liar and a manipulator. For readers who prefer heroes to exhibit some common decency, he's no catch.

The plot is less a story line than an outline to hang unrelated episodes on. Such as the one where Sabrina and the Marquess pick up a mangy, flea-ridden dog and bathe it in the study. Or the ones involving the bitchy ex-mistress. None of them are very interesting or entertaining. The mystery of who killed the earl isn't much of a mystery, and while Sabrina reminds Adam of his promise to help her from time to time there's little forward motion in solving the mystery. As for who is Sabrina's and Courtney's father, that's pretty easy to figure out, too.

I have said before that to earn a TRR five-heart rating a book must have it all: plot, characters, technique, romance. The obverse is also true. On that basis, No Decent Gentleman definitely qualifies as a one-heart book.

--Lesley Dunlap

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