Every now and then I write a review that can’t be published elsewhere because it doesn’t fit the site or because the book has been reviewed already or because the stars forbid it. Here’s one of those reviews!
The Lady and the Highwayman is three books in one. It involves a romance between two writers of penny dreadfuls, so we get the romance between the writers as well as peeks at each of their books. I found this story to be enjoyable but bland.
The plot: Elizabeth Black is a writer of respectable literary fiction and the headmistress of a girl’s school. Both jobs depend on her maintaining an appearance of propriety. However, in secret she writes extremely popular penny dreadfuls, using the name Mr. King.
Fletcher Walker is not respectable at all, having grown up on the streets. He has financial success as a penny dreadful author and is a member of a club of other penny dreadful authors. This club is devoted to aiding the poor children of London through action as well as alms. They rescue children from abusive masters and find better placements for them, which is sometimes illegal (depending on the work status of the children) and always dangerous (due to furious masters).
Fletcher is very annoyed when his popularity as an author is eclipsed by that of Mr. King and he is determined to discover Mr. King’s identity. This puts him in Elizabeth’s orbit although he does not suspect her. The two end up collaborating on saving some children while Elizabeth agrees to help Fletcher in his search so that she can throw him off her trail.
There’s a glaring, horrible problem with this book, and that is that Fletcher is the most obtuse man on the face of the planet. He does not suspect Elizabeth of being Mr. King even when he finds that, among many other clues, the following:
- Mr. King’s stories begin to echo conversations Fletcher has with Elizabeth (Fletcher assumes Elizabeth must know Mr. King and has reported the conversations to him).
- Fletcher finds a manuscript of a penny dreadful in Elizabeth’s drawer, in her handwriting (Fletcher assumes she helps him with dictation and transcription).
Lord Jesus, give me strength. This parade of obtuseness by Fletcher, and for matter by Elizabeth who might as well have “I’m Mr. King” tattooed on her face despite wanting to keep King’s identity a secret, makes an otherwise enjoyable book drop dead in its tracks. It’s a shame since the book is otherwise pleasant though not life-changing.
While Fletcher and Elizabeth are both oblivious when it comes to, respectively, detecting and hiding secrets, they are otherwise intelligent and I enjoyed seeing them work together. Both have a great sense of compassion and empathy for others and an enormous amount of mutual respect. They are both level-headed in an emergency and sweet with each other as their romance develops. The on-page physicality doesn’t go beyond kissing, and there’s not a great deal of steamy lust in the air, but it’s easy to picture them as an old married couple with a combination of birth children and adopted children and piles of manuscripts all over their house. The only conflict between them is that Elizabeth doesn’t trust him to know that she’s an author until the very end of the book, and he’s too dim to figure it out.
Of course, the penny dreadful excerpts are the best parts of the book, and I wish we got more of them. Fletcher’s story, The Vampire’s Tower, is about a pair of street urchins who try to save a larger group of urchins from a menacing kidnapper. Mr. King is the author of The LAdy and the Highwayman, in which a woman must find courage to protect her ward and to discover the true motives of a dashing and polite highwayman. These stories aren’t nearly lurid enough to be true penny dreadfuls. Where’s the gore? Where’s the sex? However, the stories are suspenseful – much more so than the romance between Elizabeth and Fletcher.
The lack of conflict between Fletcher and Elizabeth, not to mention a fairly low-key level of sexual tension, makes for a book that is soothing but not gripping. The concept of love between penny dreadful authors is a fun one, but again the lack of rational deduction on Fletcher’s part and the tame nature of the penny dreadfuls themselves makes for bland reading. I’m fine without sex and gore on the page, but a little more tension, story expansion, and consistent character behavior would have elevated this tremendously.