The Husband Hunter's Guide to London
I remember reading some of Kate Moore’s recently republished Signet Regencies and enjoying them, so I was pleased when I saw that she had a new book coming out and eagerly picked it up for review. The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London is an entertaining and well-written novel featuring two likeable principals a gently moving sweet romance and an engaging, espionage-based plotline.
Jane Fawkener has spent much of her life living in the Middle East with her father, who works as a merchant and trader but whom she has for some time suspected is really a spy for the British government. When George Fawkener goes missing and is presumed dead, Jane is immediately sent to England courtesy of the Foreign Office. In London, she is given the only two things Fawkener left her; a small blue book entitled The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London and the sum of two hundred pounds, to tide her over until she finds herself a spouse. Jane is sure her father is alive and tries to insist that the government mounts a search for him; but comes up against a brick-wall – the Foreign Office insists her father is dead and Jane must prepare to attend a ceremony at which the King will award him a posthumous knighthood for services rendered. To help her to prepare for the occasion – an occasion about which Jane couldn’t care less – she is assigned a Protocol Officer, Lord Hazelwood, who will make sure she is properly garbed and briefed as to the correct behaviour for the investiture.
Edmund Dalby, Viscount Hazelwood, lived the life of a hell-raiser until he went too far and his father disowned him after he ran up massive debts. Having pretty much reached rock-bottom, he was recruited as a spy and told his debts would be paid and his life his own once again if he served his country for a year and a day – and this is his final assignment. Given his reputation as a wastrel, Hazelwood – who soon realised he rather liked being sober – often plays the part of a drunken sot, knowing such a persona to cause people to think him unintelligent and harmless, or to ignore him altogether. He has been assigned to protect Jane from Russian agents, most particularly from Count Malikov, a Russian émigré with connections at the highest level, who believes Jane has access to the information her father was gathering. Hazelwood’s role as Protocol Officer is ideal as it will afford him plenty of opportunities to stay close to his charge, but the problem is that she very quickly makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with either him or the ceremony and tries every way she can think of to get rid of him.
Jane very quickly suspects that Hazelwood is more than a mere government flunky; and if he is working for the government there’s a very real possibility that he is among those who betrayed her father or, at the very least, is one of those more concerned with protecting her father’s information than finding out whether he is dead or alive.
I admit that I found the lack of communication between Jane and Hazelwood that persists through the first part of the book to be rather frustrating. Even after it becomes apparent that someone is out to harm Jane, she is reluctant to open up to Hazelwood and maintains the fiction of being a ‘husband hunter’ as per the instructions in the book left her, while in reality, she is trying to make sense of the various sets of initials and other details pencilled in the margins in her father’s hand. Hazelwood knows very well what she’s up to – she knows he knows… but they continue to maintain the fiction that she’s using the book to help her look for a husband and that he’s merely advising her as to the correct way to curtsey to royalty. It’s not until quite late on in the book that they finally agree to work together – although even then, Jane doesn’t fully trust Hazelwood and ends up making some very poor decisions. I also found it on the implausible side that Jane and Hazelwood were able to jaunt about London so frequently without a chaperone and nobody seemed to notice or comment on it.
One of the things Ms. Moore does incredibly well, however, is in the way she shows Jane to be a fish-out-of-water in England without making her seem terribly gauche or silly. Jane has grown up away from English society and customs, albeit in a society that has many restrictions of its own. But her experience of a society segregated according to gender means she finds it shocking that a man can so easily take a woman’s hand to help her into a carriage, for example, or that men and women are allowed to look directly into each other’s faces. She finds it strange to converse over tea in stiff-backed chairs rather than to recline on low divans over coffee, or to enter a house and not remove her shoes. The author imparts these snippets subtly and naturally as part of Jane’s personality, showing clearly that she’s a bit different from everyone around her, but not hitting us over the head with it, and I very much appreciated that.
Hazelwood is somewhat unusual, too; the scion of a noble house who has been disowned, he is shunned by most of polite society, which makes it difficult for him to be where Jane is when she attends ton parties. But he doesn’t let the disapproval of others deter him, and is even prepared to risk censure and humiliation in order to stay close to her.
The romance between Jane and Hazelwood is rather low-key – if you’re looking for steamy love scenes, you won’t find any here – but it’s nonetheless quite charming and the chemistry between the couple is evident and simmers along nicely beneath the surface. My biggest criticism of the book, though, is that the ending to the suspense plot is rushed; Hazelwood takes a big risk which lands him in serious trouble and has further repercussions, but these are glossed over with a wave of the hand.
I enjoyed The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London in spite of my reservations, although I confess I’d have liked a little more romance and a little more heat. Still it’s a strong start to Ms. Moore’s new series, and I will probably pick up the next book – about Hazelwood’s friend and colleague, Captain Clare – when it comes out later this year.