by Michelle Marcos, historical (2008)
St Martin's Press, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-312-94850-4
Is rampant stupidity some kind of epidemic all across historical romances? It sure feels like it, given that the historical romances I have read recently feature back-to-back heroines with below average intelligence unworthy to even shine my shoes. Michelle Marcos' Gentlemen Behaving Badly is no different. I don't have any expectations prior to reading this book - I just bought it for the pretty cover - so it is not as if I am expecting the moon and more.
I don't know why this book is called Gentlemen Behaving Badly, unless the gentlemen in question are the villains and not some saucy horny toad of a hero like the cover would suggest. The hero Salter Lambrick is pretty prim and proper when he's not making whoopee with the heroine. The heroine Wilhemina Halliday on the other hand is gruesomely stupid in the way only historical romance heroines with grand unworkable plans can be.
Mina's father is currently having a wonderful time in Australia. He was deported there as a convict, and Mina would have you know that the man was framed. Framed! By two possible suspects that she now intends to take down with her special brand of funny. She currently works at the Pleasure Emporium, an exclusive brothel catering to very rich men of upper crust society, as the bartender, waitress, and letter writer. No, she doesn't give out for money, genteel readers, so don't worry. Mina gives out for free instead, in the name of love to the hero, of course, so she's still sexy and virtuous.
As a letter writer, Mina writes naughty invitations to the men of the Ton, with each letter supposedly written by a prostitute to entice the man in question into visiting the brothel with promises of making his erotic fantasies come true. Mina plans to lure the two men she suspects to have framed her father to the brothel where she will set the prostitutes designated to them to pump the men - ooh, I made a dirty pun - for information. Alas, one of those men dies before he can show up at the Pleasure Emporium.
Our hero, Salter, is the Chief Constable on the case. He finds the letter written by Mina in the dead man's possession so he shows up at the place pretending to be the dead man Lord Prescott. It soon becomes clear to him that Mina is innocent of the murder but he can't shake her off yet as she's determined to track down the other man and he realizes that the other man may have something to do with Lord Prescott's death.
Despite what the cover may promise, the story isn't particularly erotic in any way even with all those clinical descriptions of the services offered in the Pleasure Emporium. Part of the problem is due to the chemistry-free relationship between Salter and Mina. He's too busy trying to stop her from getting killed, so it is not as if there is any room here for genuine romantic developments. Salter is an annoyingly secretive person, often deceiving Mina unnecessarily for her own good (and you can imagine how she reacts when she learns of his magnanimity, I'm sure). In any other book, I may be annoyed with this man.
But in this book, I can actually understand why he feels that he has to protect Mina. That woman is a mess. I cringe when she questions the suspect, for example, because she's as subtle as a pregnant yak diving into a pool. She is also unable to control her emotions. During what is supposed to a pretense in order to lull the suspect into speaking, she gets jealous when her prostitute friend is making Salter too happy with her massage session, so much so that Mina volunteers to bathe the suspect in order to get Salter's attention. She's lucky that the suspect has no sexual interest in her or things will get really messy. Mina also insists on playing Nancy Drew when she is a terrible liar - she actually clams up and resembles a terrified goldfish looking down at the toilet bowl when she's caught in a lie. She is very good at braining the hero unconscious when she wants to run amok away from his protection - and she never fails to get into trouble in the process. My favorite scene is the one where she escapes the hero's presence only to realize that she's in a seedy neighborhood and she has forgotten to bring any money with her.
I can go on and on about Mina's awesome non-stop spectacle of stupidity but I'm sure you get the idea by now. I'm not even going to elaborate on that one scene where an heiress informs the hero that she's working as a prostitute in order to look for a husband while waiting for that day when she can get her hands on her money. Well, maybe I'll just point my finger at that woman and shriek, "Die!"
Gentlemen Behaving Badly definitely should be re-titled Romance Heroines Running Wild And Stupid. It's a shame, really, that such a pretty cover has to grace a story that isn't only as dry as sawdust but it also features a heroine who is begging to be put down for good.
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