Gentlemen Behaving Badly
by Michelle Marcos
(St Martins, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-94850-6
***
Gentlemen Behaving Badly could have been a really good book. Funny lines, interesting characters, promising plot it has a lot going for it. But it's set in the wrong period. I like a veneer of historical accuracy and an authentic-sounding voice. Yeah, I'm one finicky and pain-in-the-neck stickler for details. But I think I have a right to get what I paid for.

Mina Halliday works for the Pleasure Emporium, a Regency-era bordello. No, she doesn't service clients. She lures them with seductive letters.

Mina is very selective because she has a secret agenda. She's hoping to entice the man who framed her jeweler father. Accused of theft, the latter has been transported to Australia. Mina would like to clear his name and return him to his rightful place.

Chief Constable Salter Lambrick comes across one of Mina's letters when he investigates a murder. The writer becomes his main suspect. So devoted is he to his chosen profession that he goes to the Emporium, signs up for an account and demands to have Mina.

A slight and slightly comic misunderstanding ensues when Mina plays at being a courtesan and Salter at her client. Thing are eventually cleared up. Between fighting their mutual attraction, dealing with jealous competition, and facing their insecurities, Mina and Salter pursue their investigation until they get their man and each other.

The identity of murderer doesn't come as a big surprise and none of the twists are truly unexpected. Still, they are placed at the right moment and manage to renew waning attention in the suspense plot. Marcos must have felt she needed the same thing for the romance plot. She throws in another woman. The result is superfluous and unnecessary.

Salter comes off nicely as a hard-working alpha-male with a tender side. Although he pulls off some chest-beating stunts with Mina, he is also quick to acknowledge her contributions and her intelligence. Mina is a bit too insecure for my liking. I guess living in a house with sex goddesses can't be easy on the ego, but I got tired of hearing all that self-denigration.

That's not my main problem with this book, though. It took me a while to fully accept that the story was set in the Regency era. The voice is off: Mina sounds like a sassy city chick who has lost her way from the twenty-first century. The time is wrong: Salter's professionalism would have resonated better among the hard-working and self-reliant Victorians.

I guess as a romance reader I'm not supposed to notice these things, but they did have a jarring effect. They ultimately prevented me from being fully absorbed by the novel's universe. They also diminished my pleasure in the repartee: I couldn't help thinking that Mina's quick comebacks were not quite in keeping with the period.

Now, I don't expect romance writers to have doctorates in history. I don't even expect 100% accuracy: there are other books on the market for that. And I am fully aware that what goes by the name of "historical" is often merely fancy costumes and elegant window dressing. Still, there are certain generic conventions that I have come to expect in my many years of reading romance. When these aren't respected, I'm bothered and irritated. And when that happens, I can't give more than a passing recommendation to an otherwise promising book.

--Mary Benn


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