|When Signet discontinued its Regency romance line, fans felt a chill. What about Carla Kelly? Did the demise of the Signet Regencies mean we would be deprived of any future books by this favorite author? Fortunately, the answer to that question is ‘no.’ Her newest title has just been released, but it raises yet more questions.
What’s the matter with the romance publishing industry? Why isn’t this uniquely talented writer on a major publisher’s A-list? Why aren’t editors clamoring to publish her works?
I’m grateful that the Harlequin Historical line has added Ms. Kelly to their list, but this isn’t the prominence I believe she deserves. Because my local book store doesn’t normally stock Harlequin Historical romances, I had to place a special order for Beau Crusoe. Carla Kelly’s books don’t deserve relative obscurity. They deserve to be on a special display dead center as readers enter the store.
While Beau Crusoe is set in the Regency era, it’s not the traditional Regency romance the author’s readers have come to expect from her. With its darker tone and greater level of sensuality, this book falls into the historical romance category. Ms. Kelly’s deft skill with characterization, however, remains unchanged.
James Trevenen, late of His Majesty’s Navy, is staying the night in a country inn on a journey to London from his home in Cornwall. The carelessness of a worthless fribble, Sir Percival Pettibone, creates a minor emergency, and James comes to his rescue. Sir Percival believes James has saved his life.
James was first mate on a naval vessel that sank. For five solitary, perilous years he lived on a South Pacific island fearing he’d never see another human being again. Studying a small marine crab occupied his time and saved his sanity. Eventually he was rescued by a passing ship carrying missionaries.
Two of his fellow passengers on the voyage back from the Pacific were Lady Audley and missionary Sam Higgins. James tried to make up for his years of deprivation with the eager and willing Lady Audley. Sam had contracted malaria, and James took care of him during his illness. (At one point in the story James states that malaria is not contagious–it’s “caused by bad air.”)
After his return to England, the treatise James wrote on the crab established him as a gifted scientist. He is to be awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society.
Sir Joseph Banks, head of the Royal Society, enlists the help of his family, particularly his goddaughter Susannah Park, in hosting James during his stay in London. Seven years ago Susannah had eloped with David Park, secretary to her eccentric father Lord Watchmere. David died less than a year later in a cholera epidemic. Susannah returned to her parents’ house with her son Noah, now six years old. For years she has been shunned by society; her older sister Loisa has never forgiven her for ruining the family’s reputation (and her own chances of getting married) by eloping. Susannah paints botanical specimens for Sir Joseph in order to earn a measly wage.
Sir Joseph asks three things of James: he wants him to marry Susannah, get rid of the toucans occupying the foyer of Lord Watchmere’s house (Watchmere is a bird enthusiast) that frighten Noah, and do something about Loisa.
By necessity, James is a capable man of action. Others observe; he acts. The toucans are gone in short order. James is immediately attracted to the calm, lovely Susannah but knows he can never marry.
Sir Percival has not forgotten James and the incident at the inn. In fact, he has exaggerated it so that James is being heralded as a great hero. Sir Percival’s invitations (addressed to “Beau Crusoe”) will bring Susannah back into society.
James, as Susannah gradually discovers, has his own problems. The awful days in a lifeboat after his ship sank have taken a horrible toll: James is haunted by the ghost of Tim Rowe, the carpenter’s mate who was another of those in the lifeboat.
James wishes to put the past behind him and live quietly in Cornwall, but, Sir Percival, Lady Audley, and Tim Rowe, as well his increasing fame, will make that nigh impossible.
When it comes to creating great heroes, Carla Kelly has few peers. Her heroes are everything a good hero ought to be: honorable, thoughtful, considerate, and possessing a fine sense of humor. (The toucan incident supplies a welcome comic thread in the story.) In James Trevenen, she’s created one of her most memorable heroes, on a par with Fletcher Rand (in Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand) and Daniel Sparks (in Miss Whittier Makes a List).
Countless books have featured a tortured hero – the poor guy’s stepmother was mean to him or his ex-wife done him wrong – but James Trevenen truly deserves the appellation. His survival, first from shipwreck then from years of solitary living on a deserted island, is a triumph of determination and will. His experiences have left him a remarkable man with rare abilities. His involvement with Lady Audley, more graphic and tawdry than has been common in the author’s books, is understandable in light of his physical and emotional isolation for so many years. He’s also been left unusually sensitive and intuitive. He recognizes problems with Noah that are hidden even from his mother. Susannah represents the life James desperately wants but can never have.
Susannah has also suffered from years of emotional deprivation. She’s a deserving heroine who threw everything away for love. Her husband’s death and the cholera epidemic have left a lasting mark. She has the good sense to recognize James for the great hero he is. Nevertheless, in comparison to such a model hero, she comes across as a less vivid character.
Beau Crusoe is very much a character-driven story. The secondary characters are also well drawn. Loisa grows in understanding over the course of the story. Lord and Lady Watchmere discover there is more to think about than birds. Sir Percival, a leader of fashion, understands that the right clothes make the man. The plot is the result of memorable characters being brought together in dramatic and comic ways.
Some readers may find a few plot details uncomfortable reading, but the situation as described is not solely the product of the author’s imagination. (The R-rating reflects some grisly moments rather than a high level of sensuality.) The famous English court case, Regina v. Dudley & Stephens, familiar to students of criminal law as an example of the defense of necessity, deals with a similar situation in 1884.
Books that are published under the Harlequin Historical line have a limited production and a limited shelf life. Wise romance readers will not delay in getting their own copy of Beau Crusoe. It may be grittier than Ms. Kelly’s wonderful Signet Regencies, but it is definitely one of the best historical romances published recently.