The Damsel in This Dress

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evie
by Marianne Stillings
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-073476-0
For a long time, Iíve been convinced that the quality of romance writing would improve tremendously if authors were required to spend six month as a romance reviewer. Marianne Stillings, who spent several years examining romance novels with an honest eye over at All About Romance, proves the point. Her debut, The Damsel in This Dress was a fresh-sounding charmer, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evie is a fast-paced, funny follow-up that hits the mark.

Evie Randall was raised by eccentric crime writer Thomas Heyworth after her free-spirited, single mother died when Evie was eleven. Evie was never sure why Thomas took her in, but always secretly believed he might have been her father. Evie spent her formative years on Heyworth Island in Puget Sound, caring for Thomasís pet llamas and generally being doted on by Thomas and his butler, Edmunds.

Now Evie is grown and a teacher in Port Henry, on the mainland. Thomas is dead, in what looks like murder, and heís left a surprise for Evie. The crusty writer will bequeath his entire estate to the person who solves a mystery: a treasure hunt of Thomasís own devising. There will be six participants, and theyíll be paired up. Evie will be paired with none other than Max Galloway, Thomasís estranged stepson, now a police detective.

Evie has disliked Max for years, having witnessed his callous treatment of his mother, Thomasís late wife. On a return trip to the island, however, she falls though some broken flooring in the llamaís stable and ends up in a cave underneath. Max rescues her, and to both their surprise, the attraction between them is instantaneous. Max wants no commitments and doesnít trust women, a legacy of his misogynistic father. Evie doesnít trust Max. Yet they have to work together, which will keep them in close proximity. And whoever murdered Thomas isnít done yet Ė Evie seems to be next on his list.

Marianne Stillings uses her personal knowledge of the Seattle area to great effect here. The treasure hunt requires Evie and Max to chase all over Puget Sound, and thanks to the authorís vivid descriptions, I was able to visualize the backdrop to the action on the page. But the real standout here is the dialogue. Wisecracks and puns are the order of the day, delivered with flair. Frankly, itís hard to pull this off without having the humor overshadow any real character development Ė and in places, it skates perilously close to that line Ė but for the most part, the breezy style perfectly suits the light romantic mystery format. Readers are going to laugh out loud.

I did have a quibble with one or two plot elements. Thereís a near-drowning episode that is borderline ludicrous in its resolution, and a couple of the side characters, like the Russian fortune-teller, are a bit over-the-top. But there are some equally amusing bits, such as the undercover cop named Nate Darling, who is masquerading as a poet and goes around spouting terrible rhymes. Or, in a sly tip of the hat to Perry Mason, the character of Earl Stanley, the gardener. As a bonus, I also learned a lot about llamas, and some of the characters from the authorís first book make appearances, too. It looks like Port Henry will be the setting for several future novels, as well. If theyíre as much fun as the first two, readers will be in heaven.

The romance between Evie and Max moves in a fairly predictable fashion, though Ms. Stillings doesnít hesitate when writing a steamy love scene. It was great to see Evie and Max have to face and overcome their prejudices in order to make things work. Thereís some real character growth here. Not to mention the lack of tired plot devices such as Big Misunderstandings, or, heaven forbid, the dimwit heroine who puts herself into danger and must be continually rescued from her own stupidity. These two act like adults Ė a bit bumbling in their romantic attempts, but never immature. I think Ms. Stillings learned a lot in her years as a reviewer about what NOT to write.

But I just canít help but mention the ridiculous title. It must have been a marketing ploy, because the cover shows an Eve-like cartoon with a naked woman reaching for a heart-shaped apple (Huh? No forbidden romance in this story) and the original Midnight was nothing like this book, so why bother? The authorís next book is apparently titled Sighs Matter, so the fixation on puns will continue, I guess. Please, Ms. Stillings, you donít need such lame devices Ė youíre a fine writer without it.

Light, entertaining, and funny, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evie is a real treat for a summer afternoon of reading. If you havenít already done so, I recommend you discover Marianne Stillings!

--Cathy Sova

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