Just Before Midnight takes place in late 1899, at the turn of the 20th century. Reading the opening scenes, it seemed that Ms. Robinson had fallen into an all-too-common trap for writers of historical novels. Her two main characters engage in conduct which would be unacceptable…almost unimaginable…today, let alone in 1899. My heart sank. I persevered, however, and was rewarded by a story that improved greatly over its last two-thirds.
Mattie Bright is a young American heiress, in London to fulfill her father’s dying wish and marry a titled Englishman. Cheyne Tennant is a younger son of the Duke of Bracewell and has turned his back on the usual aristocratic perks. He has earned a fortune investing in the City and, unknown to his scandalized family, also acts as a private inquiry agent for Scotland Yard. (Shades of Lord Peter Wimsey!)
Mattie and Cheyne meet when the new Panhard-Levassor Mattie is driving almost collides with Cheyne's thoroughbred. Cheyne is pitched from the horse's back and into a costermonger's stall. Unhurt, he is liberally bedecked with the costermonger's produce and…understandably…furious with Mattie. Thus begins a round of unlikely encounters in which Mattie and Cheyne take turns embarrassing each other publicly.
Fortunately, one-third of the way through the book, Cheyne hits on the idea of coaxing Mattie to help him with his current investigation. Much against his inclination, Cheyne has agreed to reenter Society in order to identify a blackmailer so vicious that several victims have killed themselves rather than face exposure. He persuades Mattie that, as a wealthy young socialite, she is ideally positioned to trap the blackmailer by pretending she is involved in a clandestine romance.
As soon as Cheyne and Mattie start working together, Just Before Midnight becomes much more enjoyable. For starters, Robinson plays fair with the clues she gives as to the identity of the blackmailer and yet managed to keep me guessing…incorrectly…right up to the villain's unveiling. Secondly, once Cheyne and Mattie start cooperating, their relationship progresses in a much more natural, convincing way.
I found both Cheyne and Mattie generally attractive, likeable characters, but neither portrayal is particularly original. The aristocrat who turns his back on the frivolous lifestyle of his peers, the down-to-earth, feisty American heiress…we've seen these two before, many times. Robinson does them nicely enough here, but without introducing any novel elements to capture our imagination.
Still, once I got past Robinson's disconcerting beginning, I found the rest of Just Before Midnight quite enjoyable. If I set aside those first 100 pages, I asked myself, how high would I rate the rest of the book? I found that I still could not rate it higher than three hearts. Even though I enjoyed the bulk of the story as I read it, I know that one or two months from now, the only way I will be able to recall the details…or perhaps even the broad outline…of Just Before Midnight will be to reread my own review. I expect a four-heart review to be more memorable.
--Nancy J. Silberstein