I realized I wasn’t enjoying this Victorian romance when, for the tenth night in a row, I avoided the book. I turned on my Kindle and, instead of opening the aptly named “Review These Books Now!” collection in which this book was stored; I yet again clicked on my “Ballin’ Bodice Rippers” list and happily re-read bits and pieces of other historicals I love. I found An Affair with Mr. Kennedy a chore to read.
The novel takes place in London in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Our hero, the thoroughly modern Zeno “Zak” Kennedy is a detective for Scotland Yard. The brilliant, clever, dedicated, athletic Zeno has a skill set so prodigious that, by the time he turned out to be a hell of a tenor with a facility for Italian opera, I abandoned any idea of seeing him as a plausible character. Zeno is a man with a mission; three years ago, a deadly bombing at King’s Cross left him missing a lover and unwaveringly determined to rid London of explosive-oriented anarchists. Currently, he’s got his eagle eye on a group of secretly seditious lords — he calls them the Bloody Four – who, Zeno believes, plan to explode a series of bombs in order to spark a violent Irish revolt which would then cause the House of Lords to vote against Irish Home Rule and thus create a possible path towards ultimate Irish independence.
One of these aristocrats, Gerald St. Clair, happens to be the brother-in-law of an impossibly gorgeous young widow, Cassandra St. Clare. The Yard wonders if Cassandra, who is also connected to another of the possible Bloody Four, the odious Lord Delamere, could be a part of the Fenian plot. Cassandra, conveniently, just moved into a townhouse in Belgravia owned by Zak which is (sigh) adjacent to his. Super sexy Cassandra, after a brief and constraining marriage, is living a rather outré life. She is an (extraordinarily talented) artist (her uber-progressive parents sent her to Paris to study when she was just seventeen where she drank, painted, and got a tattoo), rides a bicycle, lives on her own, and once she sees her fine-looking landlord, takes a lover with ease.
Zak and Cassie begin a passionate affair despite Zak’s lack of transparency about his initial interest in her. The two can’t get enough of each other, which was inopportune; I’d had enough of them as a couple by the hundredth page. Ms. Stone’s sexual prose is clunky; her descriptions of the bawdy shenanigans between Cassie and Zak veer from awkward to icky. Zak has “a brute of a penis.” Cassie, the morning after the two have first made love, as her maid Cecile serves the naked lovers breakfast in bed describes him (in French) to as “frightfully large and as hard as a Bengal tiger.” In one of many overwrought love scenes, Zak makes love to Cassie with his “throbbing shaft” as she murmurs “musical and mysterious female whispers and growls.”
Cassie and Zak, when not engaged in erotic activities, pursue the Bloody Four. I give Ms. Stone full credit for creating a complex plot; I liked the suspense component of this novel more than its romance. The book is full of well-researched facts about Impressionism, explosives, Scotland Yard, late nineteenth century condoms, and the “Irish question.” Still, Ms. Stone takes far too long to resolve her mystery and her storytelling is inconsistently paced, at times excruciatingly slow and at times oddly rushed. The suspense conclusion is a good one, but given that I found myself skimming the last half of the book, it had less resonance for me than perhaps it should.
It’s clear that Cassie and Zak are supposed to be modern, progressive Victorians. They seem, instead, to be simply modern. Ms. Stone’s language is also, upon occasion, disconcertingly current. Cassie’s best friend Lydia “goes off” on one of Zeno’s friends when the young man derides her and Cassie for riding their bikes in Hyde Park. When Cassie forgets something, Zeno says “It must have slipped your mind.” Ms. Stone successfully illuminates the history undergirding her tale, but fails to create a convincing historical tone.
This is Ms. Stone’s first historical romance — An Affair with Mr. Kennedy won Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart in 2010 for best romantic suspense manuscript. It is the first in what is to be a series entitled The Gentlemen of Scotland Yard. The premise and setting of this series are enticing — historical romance desperately needs stories other than those about the lords and ladies of the Regency era. Let’s hope Ms. Stone’s next tale of a Victorian Yard man and his love is an easier read than this overly long and often leaden debut.