|It seems that Barbara Metzger has a split personality. One part is capable of writing a charming, witty story with well-drawn characters and sharp dialogue in the vein of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. The other part permits those same characters to decline into silly quarrels, interminable repetition, and dumb conflict. At the halfway point of The Duel I was ready to assign it a five-heart rating, but shortly thereafter I knew that was not to be.
My three-heart rating is something of a compromise: I recommend you read the first half and be entertained. When things start going downhill, feel free to put it aside. It doesn’t recover. And if you can’t stand the suspense that comes from stopping midway, I can tell you they do get married. And there’s more silliness with that, too.
Ian, Earl of Marden, is on Hampstead Heath with his friend and second, Carswell, to meet Lord Paige who has demanded satisfaction for the insult to his marriage. It seems that Ian, as well as a number of others, has been intimate with Lady Paige, and Lord Paige has chosen this time not to look the other way. They will face each other with dueling pistols.
Lord Paige fires early, a shocking breach of gentlemen’s protocol. His fate rests in Ian’s hands. Ian, the guilty party, delopes, he fires over Paige’s head and hits a tree. The ball ricochets and hits a bystander riding past. The young gentleman, barely more than a boy, is badly wounded. Ian orders that he be taken to his house. They learn the youth is Troy Renslow, heir to Lord Rensdale. In a brief moment of consciousness Troy asks that his sister Attie be contacted; she cannot remain at home alone. The sister, along with a scruffy dog with irritating traits, is brought to the house where she devotedly nurses her injured brother through the long, worrisome night. She is told that her brother has been shot but not the details.
When he first glimpses Athena Renslow, Ian assumes her a young girl, but no, she is nineteen and beautiful. And she has already spent the night in his household. In the household of a notorious rake!
The Renslows have come to London from their half-brother’s country estate. Mr. Wiggs, who aspires to Athena’s hand and dowry and a comfortable clergy living, has accompanied them as Ian’s tutor. Wiggs is a pompous and self-important twit. He immediately protests Athena’s presence in a bachelor establishment.
It is essential that Ian arrange a chaperone for Athena immediately. His mother and sister are unavailable; he knows no suitable ladies. Desperate, he bribes his friend Carswell to masquerade as her chaperone, Lady Throckmorton-Jones.
“Attie, did you knows that your chaperone smells of snuff?”
But Mr. Wiggs suspicions are not allayed. He checks – there is no Lady Throckmorton-Jones! Ian knows that he might have to marry Athena, but how can he? She still doesn’t know he was the one who shot her beloved brother. And there are some further dangerous complications.
“Yes, and she needs a shave, too. Wasn’t she wonderful though?”
“Top of the trees,” Troy said, looking over at the book at his bedside table. “Almost as nice as Mr. Carswell.”
The male characters in The Duel are the best part of it, particularly Ian and his friend Carswell. Even Wiggs (a clergyman in the tradition of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice) is delightful and entertaining in a slimy sort of way. Ian’s resolution to reform his life and become responsible is both amusing and believable.
The female characters, including Athena and Lady Paige, are less appealing. Athena cries too often and refuses to face reality long after any right-thinking heroine would be giving up the looking-for-a-position nonsense. Ian’s an earl after all, healthy, wealthy, and virile. The conflict between them becomes contrived and foolish.
There’s a fine line between farce as a literary form and farce as a ridiculous mess. The Duel tries to straddle that line, and it doesn’t succeed. The vivid characters can’t rescue a story that loses its way.
Maybe someday someone will publish a book titled When Bad Things Happen to Good Books anthology of the good parts of books that start off great and end up going south. The Duel deserves inclusion. What a shame. It could have been a keeper.