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The Haunting of Henrietta
by Sandra Heath
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-18650-8
**
Here are the ingredients in this Regency recipe:

  • ghostly pair stuck in this dimension until lovers from feuding families find each other
  • ghosts' ghostly dog who can be heard by persons with psychic abilities
  • lovers (ghosts' look-alikes) separated by the Big Misunderstanding (they're psychic too!)
  • wicked Other Woman who will stoop to any nasty trick no matter how low
  • wicked Other Man who isn't much better
  • baby who comes at inconvenient time and place
  • St. Peter (yes, the heavenly gatekeeper)
  • Old Nick (think CEO of a very hot place)
  • a bogle (a nasty little gremlin)
  • hidden treasure
  • recently rediscovered smugglers' path
  • French privateer hanging around off-shore
  • suspected traitor passing info to the French
  • phantom ship that comes and goes
  • dangerous channel shoals
  • chase at sea
  • kitchen sink (probably in there somewhere)

The result? The literary equivalent of commonplace hash rather than a genteel English tea with cakes.

Miss Jane Courtenay and Lord Kit Fitzpaine fell in love and eloped a century earlier. Their ship sank at sea, and they perished. This started a feud between the two families.

At the time, St. Peter made a mistake with the result that Jane and Kit cannot enter heaven until members of their families fell in love. Old Nick, however, in typical fashion has complicated the process by requiring that this can only occur when it snows on New Year's Day as long as the snow remains on the ground. Since this is a rare occurrence in England, Jane and Kit have been hanging around for a long time along with their spaniel Rowley. Occasionally, Rowley can be heard barking by persons who are psychic. (One of the amazing supernatural aspects of this book is that characters actually know and use the word "psychic" which didn't enter the English language until the second half of the nineteenth century!)

Henrietta Courtenay has joined a house party given by her dear friend Charlotte who is expecting her first child. She has brought a friend, Amabel, who says she wishes to be reconciled with Charlotte. Charlotte doubts Amabel's motives and thinks she is using Henrietta. Marcus Fitzpaine, Marquess of Rothwell, unexpectedly also joins the party after entertaining the company with a fireworks exhibition off his elegant yacht.

Henrietta and Marcus have a past. They had met at a masquerade and were immediately attracted, but Marcus lied about his name rather than reveal he's a despised Fitzpaine. Henrietta, who's a great heiress, was later told that Marcus had placed a bet in White's book saying that he would be able to seduce her. She immediately severed her relationship with Marcus and became engaged to her informant. (Of course, an open dialogue with Marcus would have resolved everything, but Henrietta's one of those annoying heroines who would rather believe the tattling fortune hunter and the back-stabbing b**** than the handsome hunk she's engaged in some heavy petting with.)

Jane and Kit realize that this may be their only chance to finally enter heaven so they hang around hoping things will work out. But things are not working out well because Henrietta is the victim of several accidents and even more close calls and she and Marcus quarrel whenever they're in proximity. (Typically, she doesn't even give him a chance to explain but just tosses insults and accusations at him then flounces away.)

If that weren't enough, the French are causing all kinds of trouble. The government has split the nation's treasury and sent it to various locations around the country for safekeeping. An enemy ship is lurking off the coast. What if it's there to get some of the gold? What about those signals to the French? Could there be a traitor in their midst? Is Marcus succumbing to Amabel's attractions? What if the doctor's way off on Charlotte's due date? What about the bogle? And is Rowley permanently lost?

Could there be more complications thrown in? (After all, "they're rioting in Africa....") Probably, but this story has enough problems jammed into it for several books. The result is that there are several occasions when the author wraps up a theme by statements along the line of "the characters went there and took care of that." If several minor subplots had been eliminated, the main plot wouldn't have been affected at all, but the book would have been improved.

An additional needed improvement is in the characters. Jane and Kit are agreeable enough, but Henrietta is just plain aggravating. Could she be any more gullible? Could she be any less trusting of the noble hero? Could she just settle down and have a conversation with the man? Does Marcus really want to spend the rest of his life with this obtuse, irritating woman?

I'm not a Regency romance purist. I appreciate an author's trying to introduce non-traditional elements into the genre, but this mish-mash isn't "pushing the envelope" it's wadding it up and stomping on it.

--Lesley Dunlap


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