Not So Innocent
by Laura Lee Guhrke, historical (2002)
Sonnet, $6.99, ISBN 0-671-02369-1


If you think you are saturated by all those bluestocking doormats in your Regency era historical romances (the IKEA next to the RWA HQ must be having a doormat cheap sale recently), you may want to give Laura Lee Guhrke's Not So Innocent a miss. Not that I encourage you to, because while Sophie Haversham may be a doormat, at least she is a two-dimensional doormat. I like her - maybe that says something about Ms Spinefree Have-at-me here. The hero Mick "Dimbo" Dundar, however, is to die for.

Dimbo is not a happy Scotland Yard inspector. He just turned thirty-six, and shaving his graying moustache doesn't stop the jokes from his colleagues. His day takes a turn for the worse when he punches and jails an important fellow's son, but nothing beats being identified as a future murder victim by a silly dimwit. Miss Spinefree Have-at-me is one of those poor-woe-me types who is plagued by visions of murder scenes and other jolly stuff. Of course, she doesn't think of how she will present her case in a convincing manner to Dimbo. Miss Spinefree instead goes into non-sequitur mode, babbling on and on about a female friend who injured her drunken husband in self defense. Needless to say, Spinefree is all but thrown out on the streets.

But he begins to take Spinefree more seriously when he is almost shot at the spot where that silly chit said he would bite the big one. He decides that maybe that killer is her boyfriend or something and she is trying to protect said killer while warning Dimbo off at the same time. Since Spinefree and her opportunist parasitic kleptomaniac aunt Violet run an inn for genteel people, he decides to crash that place. And stick very closely to Spinefree. But not too closely, Dimbo, or your hands may end up stuck down her blouse - oops.

Happy birthday, Dimbo.

Spinefree's mother and sister come visiting, all determined to see Spinefree wedded before the Season is out, much to Spinefree's dismay. As her mother, sister, and aunt begin their tug-of-war to see who can rip out the biggest part of Spinefree for their personal fun, Spinefree gets visions of Death and Doom and Dimbo finds himself playing her prince gallant. He does it very well though. Dimbo is cute. He is unpolished without being rude and obnoxious, commanding without being condescending, reliable and dependable without neing suffocating at the same time, and suspicious with good reason at Spinefree's wishy-washy tale of visions and all. In short, Dimbo's a near-perfect perfect beta hunk who could be counted on to carry this story to the finishing line.

Spinefree is a more problematic character in that she embodies all the annoying stereotypes of a Regency bluestocking - will do anything to protect her aunt who doesn't want to be protected, cannot seem to plot or plan with even minimal intelligence (it's pretty much sense-free visceral operating in Spinefree), and yes, she wants to have an affair with Dimbo because she is sure that no man will ever want her EVER because she lost her boyfriend when he learned that she was a psychic, sob sob sob. But thanks to Dimbo being there, Spinefree never has to carry out one of those braindead schemes bluestocking heroines love to do. Dimbo is there to rein in Spinefree, and as a result, Spinefree doesn't actually do anything in this story other than to cling to Dimbo like an ivy. But the positive trade-off to Spinefree's passive nature in this story is that she doesn't do anything that can rupture the blood vessels in my head either. Don't think she wouldn't do any calamity of that sort if you drive her to it - watch as her eyes glow in those insane "Must Protect Auntie Now" Glow of Demonic Stupidity when the hero tries to play that angle in his investigation. She would, but Dimbo is there to stop her from going all out to act stupid, and I love Dimbo even more for that. Dimbo's noble sacrifice to play the pillar to the poison ivy that is Spinefree is one we should all spare a few grateful thoughts to. His patience and willingness to listen leads her to pause and think before flying off her handle. Thank you, Dimbo - thank you!

The heroine's character is also salvaged by her self-awareness towards the end of the story. In a way, even if she is a passive doormat for too long in this story, she has no illusions when it comes to her relationship with Dimbo. Her feelings aren't the usual blind infatuation sort: in this aspect, Spinefree does develop as a character, and in the end, she may have a stab at being more brainy one day, provided Dimbo can get her away from her aunt and her mother.

The mystery is decent, but thanks to the author not actually fleshing out the hero and the heroine's background - the villain is connected to the hero - the denouement lacks the emotional impact it could have if I can emphatize more with Dimbo's background. For characters, Dimbo and Spinefree have genuine chemistry and their relationship rings more real than most of the romances I've read, and I like them. But they aren't as well-developed as they should be if I'm supposed to be gripped by the denouement.

The chemistry between the very likable characters remind me of those nicer couples that one could find in, say, an Amanda Quick or Julia Quinn novel, that is, a story where the couple comes off as good friends as well as great lovers. In this case, the very nice romance is enough to compensate for any weaknesses in Spinefree's characterization or in the external plot. Not So Innocent is not so bad - not bad at all.

Rating: 86


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