The Bedeviled Barrister
by Bess Willingham
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6085-8
***
Mary Jo Putney dealt with alcoholism in The Rake and the Reformer. I guess it makes a great deal of sense for Willingham to deal with compulsive gambling in her latest book, especially given the prominence of this vice in Regency society. Unfortunately, Willingham's hero does not have Reggie's charm and his constant preoccupation with his particular vice suggests a weakness of character that is not appealing in a romance hero.

Sir Hugo first met Evelyn Waring in a gambling hell run by the Widow Philpot. The young lady was engaged in a desperate gamble to win enough money to provide for her young sister's recuperative journey to Bath. Hugo was there feeding his addiction for the excitement betting provided. They both lost. Evelyn found herself in desperate straits, for she not only lost her stake but was deeply in debt to the house. Sir Hugo would have liked to assist her, but he was deep in dun territory. Instead, the old Earl of Goreham stepped in and offered to cover Evelyn's debt and provide her sister with medical treatment, support and a dowry if the young woman would marry him. With no other options, Evelyn accepted the Faustian bargain.

The story really starts five years later. Evelyn is now the widowed Countess of Goreham. Her husband left her comfortably well off and her sister cared for, provided that, at the end of her year's mourning, Evelyn is unmarried, unattached and untouched. Every morning, Evenly stands by her bedroom window and watches the man who five years earlier had been kind to her but who had been unable to save her from a loveless and sexless marriage. She feels drawn to him, but will of course do nothing to threaten her inheritance.

The night at the Widow Philpot's changed Sir Hugo's life as well. Shamed by his inability to assist the young woman and impressed by her bravery, Hugo gave up gambling from that moment. He has made a name for himself in his profession and has amassed a tidy fortune. But his personal life is empty, because he remains attracted to the young woman he met that memorable night. And so, every day he walks by her house, hoping to get a glimpse of her in her window.

Perhaps these two would have gone on watching each other from afar were it not for the machinations of Percival, the new Earl of Goreham. Percival hates his stepmother, both because her inheritance will decrease his own and because they are rival historians. Both are members of the Society to Study Tudor History, but Evelyn has outstripped her stepson and is about to publish a book based on family diaries. Percival knows that Evelyn watches Hugo every day and devises a plan to ruin his stepmother. He arranges for Hugo to be invited to a houseparty at Goreham Castle.

I think you can pretty much predict the rest, but I can tell you that the plot includes attempted murder, kidnapping and that worst of all crimes to a college professor plagiarism!

Authors who create deeply flawed heroes walk a fine line. It is imperative that the reader feel sympathy and admiration for the hero. He must seem both weak and strong. It is not an easy task, and I am afraid that Willingham didn't quite pull it off. I wish I could explain it more clearly, but somehow when Putney's Reggie fought off temptation, he seemed strong. Hugo, for some reason, comes across as weak. Too much internalized angst, I guess.

Evelyn is a perfectly acceptable heroine, but I never felt as if I really knew her. Percival is a slimy villain if there ever was one. Imagine taking credit for someone else's work of history. Shocking! Actually, his character was the most clearly drawn in the book.

There is nothing wrong with The Bedeviled Barrister (except the title!) But there is nothing outstanding about it either. One is glad at the end that Hugo and Evelyn end up together and that justice prevails. Devoted fans of the Regency will possibly enjoy the book. I found it too long.

--Jean Mason


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