Celia's Grand Passion

Dangerous Deceptions

The Golden Leopard

Lord Dragoner's Wife

Lucy in Disguise

The Silver Lion

Dangerous Passions by Lynn Kerstan
(Signet Eclipse, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-21623-7
It’s always disappointing when a book has a sagging middle. And beginning. And end.

Two years after Waterloo, Col. Lord Marcus Cordell should be selling his commission and traveling to his impoverished estate in Norfolk. But he has been summoned to undertake a “mission” for a mysterious organization called Black Phoenix. He is not impressed with the way Black Phoenix is run, particularly when they seem unable to provide him with any information about his partner in the mission. Lady Eve is supposed to pose as his fiancée, but he doesn’t even know what she looks like.

He manufactures an excuse to be introduced to Lady Eve at a ball. Despite the fact that she is all polite gentility, he is convinced that the confident, “formidable” young woman hates him.

In fact, Lady Eve does hate Cordell. The reasons are quite vague for most of the book; the reader only knows that she blames him for somehow betraying her beloved Johnnie (who served under Cordell on the Penninsula). Nonetheless, Lady Eve is determined to kill Cordell and have her revenge for Johnnie’s death.

Which might make it a bit tricky to pretend she’s fallen in love with him at first sight. You see, the Black Phoenix wants the two of them to investigate a series of murders which appear to be connected. For some reason, the only way for the murder investigation (or the “mission” as everyone in the book insists on referring to it repeatedly) to proceed is for Cordell and Lady Eve to pretend to be engaged.

This is a very, very slow book. Part of the reason is the total lack of urgency surrounding the “mission.” Young aristocrats are being murdered, and their bodies left in circumstances that seem to be sending a message, but the author gives us absolutely no clue for most of the book as to who they are or why we should care. There’s no emotional urgency because no one featured in this book has any connection with the victims.

No one, that is, except the killer, and the author very carefully gives us absolutely no clues whatsoever as to the killer’s identity. None – not even any misdirection or red herrings. It made it awfully hard to get involved in the mystery.

While the reader is waiting for something to actually happen, lots of people have lots of long conversations about not very much, and there are lengthy descriptions of various situations. A little makes nice color and atmosphere. So much drags the slow pace down to a crawl.

In fact, there’s absolutely no sense of urgency about anything. Lady Eve doesn’t seem all that concerned about the conflict between her “mission” and her desire for vengeance. Mostly she just seems to be mystified by how attractive she finds Cordell, and how she quite likes his attentions as he ‘pretends’ to be besotted with her. But how can this be? She hates him. But she wants him. Frankly, her hatred and her passion were equally tepid.

Cordell, while likable enough, is even more opaque. It’s one thing for a character to hide his thoughts and feelings from other characters. If they’re also hidden from the reader, we have no reason to care about what happens to him. Cordell and Lady Eve have sex once, but it was a bit clinical for my taste, and there wasn’t much romance to go with it. Particularly since, once it was over, Cordell pulled all his feelings into his shell and slammed the hatch shut.

And Black Phoenix has the dubious distinction of being an extremely vague and disorganized secret society. People come and go from the organization whenever they feel like it, investigate pretty much whatever they want, and when Cordell says he’s giving up the mission because it has put Lady Eve in danger, no one seems terribly concerned – enhancing the general ‘so what?’ atmosphere that surrounds the mission.

This book did have a perfectly wonderful conclusion. Finally, twelve pages in a row I could read without nodding off.

-- Judi McKee

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