Maggie Needs An Alibi by Kasey Michaels
(Kensington, $22.00, G) ISBN: 1-575-66879-3
****
Were it not for the fact that I saw a new romance by Kasey Michaels on the shelves just a couple of days ago, I might well be bemoaning the defection of yet another romance author to another genre. The reason: Maggie Needs An Alibi is not a romance novel. Rather, it is a mystery and an extremely clever one at that. Moreover, it is clearly the beginning of a series, one that I can assure you I will be following assiduously.

Imagine a writer in the throes of composing the finale of her latest book and you have our heroine, Maggie Kelly. Maggie began her career writing romance novels and was enjoying a modest success when the bean counters decided to decimate the midlist of her publishing house. Undaunted, Maggie decided to reinvent herself as a mystery writer. Since she had done tons of research about Regency England, she decided that her hero would be an aristocratic Regency detective, Alexander, Viscount St. Just. To add a bit of levity to her tale, she gave him a sidekick, Mr Sterling Balder, a bit of Watson and Sancho Panza in Regency garb.

Maggie had the felicitation of seeing her mysteries become bestsellers and the cash cows of the very publishing house that had once turned her loose. In short, Maggie has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

What she never expected in her wildest dreams was that her fictional creations would appear on day in her apartment. So realistic was her portrayal of St. Just and Sterling that they literally came to life, first in her mind and then in reality. Maggie is not amused and at first attributes the apparitions to the disconnection with the world that often seems to be a part of the writer’s life. Of perhaps her actor doorman is playing a joke on her. But St. Just and Sterling are indeed real, Regency gentlemen plunked down in 21st century New York.

Maggie Needs An Alibi is clearly a mystery and a quite good one at that. One evening, her publisher and former lover succumbs to poisoning after dining at her apartment. Was it the mushrooms? Clearly someone had killed Kirk Toland and the means is apparently some poisonous mushrooms. St. Just and Maggie have to combine their deductive talents to find out whodunit.

But while the mystery is intelligent and clever, what really led to my enjoyment of this book was not merely uncovering the guilty party. Rather it was first, Michaels delightful description of a Regency nobleman at large in the contemporary world. Second, it was the author’s dead on portrayal of the business of writing and publishing. I suppose all of us who read Regency romances and historicals fantasize about what it would be like to have a Regency hero in her life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? While, Michaels seems to suggest that it might not be so grand to have a proud and prejudiced English nobleman around 24/7, even if he is your own imaginative creation.

Much of the fun of this book - and there is lots of fun - is watching Alexander and Sterling navigate this very different world. Fortunately, both have lived in Maggie’s head for quite sometime, so they are not completely ignorant about the world. But Maggie has created St. Just to be a man of his times, with all the attitudes and behaviors which, while perhaps appropriate to a viscount in 1812, are definitely out of place in 2002. Imagine learning about the world from TV? Sterling, a devotee of old TV programs, develops a passion for Alice from the “Brady Bunch” and can’t quite understand why she doesn’t answer his letters. There is much more playful use of this clash of cultures and it is all immensely amusing.

Another source of fun is Michaels’ description of both the life of the writer and the world of publishing today. If much of the humor in this material is of a satirical kind, well I have a feeling that the author describes the current state of the publishing industry all to accurately.

One can’t help love Maggie. She is a bundle of insecurities despite her success but she finally adjusts to the miraculous real life appearance of her characters with commendable aplomb. As for St. Just, well he is everything any reader could want in a romantic hero, except that it becomes fairly clear that most of us really wouldn’t want him in the flesh. But he does begin to adapt and improve as the story goes on.

There is perhaps a promise of romance in Maggie Needs An Alibi St. Just’s response to the police lieutenant (or as he persists on saying, “lef”-tenant) suggests that the erstwhile viscount’s feelings for his hostess and creator may becoming a trifle warm. But any relationship is left for the future.

I certainly hope there will be a long future for Maggie and her magical detective. Suspend all disbelief and enjoy the ride. Maggie Needs An Alibi

--Jean Mason


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