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Little Coquette by Joan Smith
(Fawcett, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-449-00153-9
***
Tell me, can a Regency mystery ignore all the conventions of Regency behavior in order to further the plot? Can the heroine in pursuit of a murderer ignore with impunity all the accepted standards of behavior without problem or penalty? Can she travel to London alone with a young man, visit him unchaperoned in his house, attend a party with him and no female companion, slip out of her house at midnight, and consort with "ladies of ill repute" at a Pantheon Ball?

Our heroine, Lydia Trevelyan, does all this and more in the company of one of the ton's most eligible bachelors. If you can accept that an eighteen year old girl, even one who aspires to spinsterhood, would so behave, then you might well think more highly of Little Coquette than I did.

Lydia has decided not to marry. Her parents' marriage has not been such to instill warm feelings about the possibility of wedded bliss. She has read Mary Wollstonecraft and has decided to chafe at the restrictions society (and her mother) place on her behavior. She has taken up fishing, not because she especially enjoys it, but because it is a male pursuit. One day, while fishing in the stream that separates her home from her neighbor, Lord Beaumont's, estate, she finds his lordship himself, also fishing. Although eight years separate the two, they had been friendly as children. But now, Lydia is resentful of the fact that her mother seems to want her to attach the very eligible Beau.

When Beau hooks a big one, it turns out not to be a fish, but rather a dead body. The corpse is a woman who clearly was "no better than she should be." Lydia discovers that the victim was her father's mistress. She determines to find out who murdered the woman and enlists Beau in her quest. Thus, all the events and happenings described above.

I have never before read a Joan Smith Regency, although I have been intrigued by her recent turn to Regency romantic mysteries. I must assume that she knows about Regency manners and mores. There was very little truly "Regency" about this book. The heroine was much more a 20th not an early 19th century character. Thus, in my mind, this book failed as a Regency. There really wasn't a lot of mystery or suspense either.

However, the romance was nicely done. The plot device of having two people who have been childhood friends discover that friendship has become something much more is enjoyable, especially if well done. And Smith does it well. Lydia is young and inexperienced; like many of the very young, she has strong if ill-founded opinions. Leaving her sheltered existence forces her to grow up and to reevaluate her own ideas about the world and her place in it.

Beau is also young at 26, young enough to find the pursuit of the murderer a great adventure. But he is also old enough to understand why Lydia feels as she does and to help her both find the truth and to accept that the world is often ambiguous. One can believe that Lydia and Beau are meant for each other.

Since I liked the heroine and hero and enjoyed watching their relationship develop, I am rating this an acceptable read. But be warned that if you are at all a Regency purist, Smith does not offer a very accurate portrayal of that era. I wonder, are her straight romances as un-Regency-like as this mystery? I've got several on my to-be-read pile and need to know whether I should in fact read them

--Jean Mason


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