A detective hero, an unconventional heroine, a supposedly haunted mansion, a decades-old mystery, blackmail and murder – sounds interesting, no? These are the main ingredients of Samantha Garver’s Dark Whispers, a historical romance that somehow manages to take these intriguing elements and combine them into a story that really isn’t very interesting at all.
As the story begins, Benedict Bradbourne arrives at the bedside of his oldest friend just before said friend dies, revealing that he was stabbed by someone who stole his watch. Shortly thereafter, Benedict leaves London for Rochester Hall in search of answers. Why does he go there of all places in his search for the killer? The author doesn’t reveal that for about a hundred more pages, even though there’s no reason to keep that from the reader. Revealing it from the start is just good storytelling, while withholding it keeps the narrative annoyingly vague. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around in the first part of the book.
Harriet Mosley is an unusually tall and independent young woman who works in a bookstore and hangs around with a group of similarly strong-willed women. If that sounds vague, then it’s an accurate reflection of how her background comes across in the book. (Though I haven’t read it, it appears one of her friends is the heroine of Garver’s previous book, One Night To Be Sinful. She appears so fleetingly no knowledge of the prior book is necessary.) For her birthday, Harriet’s friends give her the gift of a visit to Rochester Hall. Every year, Lady Dorthea Cruchely opens the estate, said to be “the most haunted in all of England,” to visitors. It seems like the perfect gift for someone with Harriet’s penchant for macabre stories. Soon after her arrival, she meets Lady Cruchely’s other guests, including Benedict, and before long, the two of them are caught up in the mysterious, and potentially dangerous, events at Rochester Hall.
It sounds like the kind of story I love…when it’s done well. Garver’s version is simply mediocre. The pacing is too leisurely and the mystery is seldom as suspenseful or mysterious as it should be. The big clue to the villain’s identity is so obvious Nancy Drew would turn her nose up at it, and the ultimate resolution to one of the mysteries (the decades old one) is so anticlimactic the whole thing just seems unnecessary. This is very much a wallpaper historical. As far as I could tell, an exact year was never given, and there’s little sense of the time and place. Benedict is a Bow Street Runner (something revealed on the back cover but not by the author for a needlessly long time), which may help some readers get a general idea of the setting. Basically, though, this is just Generic Historical England.
Harriet is one of the better aspects of the book. While she isn’t deep and her character doesn’t entirely ring true, she was at least energetic and demonstrated some wit and courage, all of which I appreciated. Most of the characters around her are paper thin. This includes Benedict, who’s pretty blah. The mystery elements already overshadow the romance and character development, and having such a drab hero certainly didn’t help the love story any. The two characters don’t have much spark or genuine chemistry together, the relationship felt by-the-numbers, and basically I didn’t really care.
It’s too bad, because there are individual scenes that work. Almost in spite of myself, I’d find myself caught up in an effective moment or smiling at a particularly good exchange. At those instances, there were glimmers of what the book could have been. But those moments would inevitably pass and I’d be left with a story that was only sporadically interesting and more often not.
I didn’t really mind Dark Whispers, but much of the time I had to fight the urge to skim. The best thing about it was probably its price. This is one of Zebra’s cheaper historicals, so I only paid five bucks for it. Of course, if it had been six or seven, I likely wouldn’t have taken the chance on it. That may have been even better.