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Whisper His Name
By Elizabeth Thornton
(Bantam, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-57427-2
***
I never did figure out if the whispered name of the title was that of the good guy or the bad guy. The bad guy was known as Nemo, and since he's an assassin, I figure I'm probably right in assuming it was his name being whispered.

Whatever the name, the whispering undoubtedly comes from Abbie Vayle, an independent young spinster who unwittingly becomes involved in a game of international espionage involving an ex-British spy and one of Napoleon's henchmen. Abbie visits Paris during Napoleon's exile on Elba to acquire books for her own rare book business and, unbeknownst to her, is slipped a tome containing secret messages detailing an assassination plot.

Months later Abbie is accosted in bed by a man demanding the book in return for her brother George's life. Her friend Hugh Templar is a scientific-type who lives near Bath, Abbie thinks, in order to examine the nearby Roman ruins. Hugh, however, stays in Bath to be near Abbie, who has no idea that she has captured the imagination of this ex-spy. But though Hugh has forsaken his old career, instinct assures him that something is rotten in Denmark when Abbie suddenly decides to leave Bath.

Reading this book was a modestly enjoyable experience that occasionally threatened to become an exercise in frustration thanks to one of those conveniently implausible plot devices that no one for a minute believes would actually occur. In this case, it's the fact that the Abbie, pursued by an international killer, refuses to tell Hugh what is going on.

Nemo has insisted on complete compliance and secrecy in this matter, or else Abbie's brother gets it. But Abbie consistently tests Nemo's patience by refusing to follow exact orders. Hugh's instincts are so well hewn that he basically guesses the truth, but Abbie does nothing but lie to him and justify her actions as the way to spare her brother's life. But (and this is a big but) she has no intention of granting her own family the same benefits. Because, contrary to what Nemo thinks, Abbie isn't on the way to London to find the book, she's headed towards her siblings to fill them in on what is going on. So she'll lie to Hugh and claim it is for his protection and the safety of her brother, but she won't grant her family the same protection. Nonsensical.

Of course, all the deceit leads to heartache. Somewhere in the middle of the muddle, Abbie has noticed that her devoted friend Hugh is a rather handsome devil and falls under his spell. And Hugh is so in love with Abbie that he even intends to marry her (imagine that!) But then he finds out she's been lying and feels betrayed, and she finds out that he was once a spy and never told her and she feels betrayed and things just start to spiral into the stereotypical.

Granted, in a book that is so plot driven, it's often hard to pull the characters out from the shadows of their actions. But author Elizabeth Thornton occasionally manages to give the reader insightful glimpses into Abbie's and Hugh's inner selves. Abbie's change of heart regarding her spinster status, thanks to the kind words of an elderly relative, reveal more about her strong heart and mind than all the running around. Hugh, who so easily could have been a cardboard cutout, becomes much more sympathetic through the short references to his previous life and on how the "real" Hugh is an unknown even to the woman he loves.

It is these small scenes, however brief, that lift Whisper His Name above the frenzy and make it nearly recommendable. After all, romances between caricatures are just no fun.

--Ann McGuire


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