A Good Rogue is Hard to Find
I was only a few pages into A Good Rogue is Hard to Find when it became clear that in Kelly Bowen, I’d found a new author worth watching. Most of the débuts and follow-ups I’ve read over the past couple of years have been average at best, but this, Ms Bowen’s second book, is a very accomplished piece of work. It’s full of warmth, humour and intelligence, the characters are likeable and well-rounded and the author has managed to find an unusual plotline that, while it does require rather a sizeable suspension of disbelief, is handled so well as to make it possible for the reader to accept it and just go with the flow.
William Sommerhall, Duke of Worth, is handsome, charming and wealthy, and lives a carefree life among his many friends and acquaintances in London. He inherited his title some years previously, but the responsibilities and trappings accompanying it don’t interest him and he relies on his various secretaries and stewards to run his estates, thus leaving him more time to devote to his passion for breeding racehorses. But the recent escalation of the gossip about his mother’s eccentricities has become too much for him to bear and he decides he must go home in order to try to curb her excesses.
Will arrives at the Dower House on his Breckenridge estate to find it in uproar following the unexpected appearance of a number of Her Grace’s raucous “pet” chickens and a snake named Philip at one of her regular dinner parties. Not only that, but he finds himself face to face with the young woman who has haunted his dreams following their brief meeting at a ball a few months earlier and for whom he’s been searching ever since – (I assume this happened in the previous book, I’ve Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm, which I haven’t read). He is even more stunned to discover that she’s his mother’s companion.
Having experienced the complete chaos of his mother’s household first hand, there’s only one thing for Will to do – move in, straighten out the finances, make sure her rather rag-tag bunch of servants are doing right by her, and try to get her to see that she’s just a step away from social ostracism.
For Eleanor, the Dowager Duchess of Worth and her companion, Miss Jenna Hughes, the duke’s sudden interest in his mother’s affairs couldn’t have come at a worse time. This is where that required suspension of disbelief I mentioned earlier comes in, because the ladies are in fact in the process of organising a massive scam, which is due to come to fruition in a matter of weeks and which they must keep hidden from Will at all costs.
Jenna is charged with coming up with ways to distract the duke while she and the duchess continue making their plans, so she suggests that he starts his review of the estate finances as soon as possible, knowing that the elderly, deaf secretary, George, will keep him occupied for several days at least. But Will isn’t so easily diverted and much to Jenna’s annoyance, proves himself to be very shrewd and surprisingly intelligent. He knows there is something iffy going on and Jenna, realising how tenacious he is, slowly and at first reluctantly, lets him in on part of the secret. She and his mother are waging a clandestine war against those heedless members of the nobility who repeatedly fail to honour their debts, leading to hardship and ruin for many honest, hardworking men and women – but whom the law cannot touch:
… the peerage had devised a robust system of laws to punish cheats and debtors while the peers themselves remained largely immune…
The first part of the story is a frothy delight as Jenna and the dowager lead Will a merry dance in their attempts to pull the wool over his eyes. His sometimes sulky reactions are surprisingly cute, and it’s impossible to dislike him when he points out how much he hates it when people never look beyond his title and admittedly hefty bank balance.
Jenna and Will are wonderful together. Their verbal exchanges are full of wit and subtle humour and the attraction between them is palpable. Their relationship progresses at a sensible pace, and it’s this gradual growth of the emotion between them and the way the author imbues it with a degree of realism that makes it easy to overlook the rather unlikely premise of the story. But what starts out as a light-hearted, fluffy read treads a darker path in the second half, which takes a slightly longer than normal look at class differences in nineteenth century England, and at the grim realities faced by those people whose lives were ruined by the selfishness of others. It’s here that the full extent of the plans being hatched by Jenna and the duchess are finally revealed – and it’s something that Will, even with his new-found appreciation for what the ladies are doing – finds almost impossible to stomach.
Although Will, Jenna and the dowager are all engaging and well-written characters, the star of the book is undoubtedly Will, who grows and matures a lot throughout the story. At first, Jenna thinks of him in much the same way as everyone else who knows him, as “a beautiful fribble of a man”, just like any other aristocrat who treats privilege as his due, is oblivious to how lucky he really is and is uninterested in the suffering of others. At the beginning of the book, Will is a little pompous and tends to see everything in black and white – but as the story progresses, he is brought to acknowledge the advantages of his position and starts to see that perhaps his view has been too simplistic. His is not so much a change of heart as it is a re-alignment of it, so that his evolution from being a man who doesn’t know enough about the life of the poor to care about it, to one who wants to help is absolutely convincing.
Eleanor, too, is a complex character, a woman whose husband treated her abominably and whose life had been one of quiet endurance until his death. After that, she cultivated a reputation for eccentricity, hiding her keen intelligence and ability to strategize as well as any military general behind the façade of a dotty old woman so that nobody would ever suspect what she was up to. The moment late in the book when Will realises this, and what it must have cost her to allow everyone to believe she is so much less than she really is, is beautifully done and very poignant.
Ms Bowen’s writing is assured, displaying a deftness of touch and seemingly effortless flow that drew me in completely from the first page. A Good Rogue is Hard to Find isn’t a perfect book, but it’s an enjoyable one, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever the author does next.