Just Before Midnight
Have you ever read a book that is so simplistic, so inaccurate and so frustrating that it makes you grit your teeth? That’s just what Just Before Midnight is. I’m surprised my teeth weren’t worn down to stubs when I finally turned the last page of this book.
Mattie Bright is your average spunky American heiress with a mission. Her father’s wish before he died was for her to marry a British aristocrat so her family can finally gain the social acceptance they are denied despite their enormous wealth. Mattie is trying her best, but that danged temper of hers and her American spunkiness keep getting her in trouble. Then one day while driving her motorcar she nearly runs over Cheyne Tennant, the youngest son of a duke and not the waste of space that typifies the average member of the British aristocracy. (And please note that all members of the British aristocracy are completely degenerate and useless except for a few individuals who miraculously escape the rot, like Tennant, because the book belabors this point again. And again. And again.)
Sparks fly. The two of them can’t stand each other, but that doesn’t prevent them from instantly falling in lust. Then Tennant, who is a private investigator besides being a financier-tycoon-investor type, is asked to help Scotland Yard in a blackmailing case. He asks Mattie to help him trap the blackmailer by setting herself up as a fake victim with a dirty secret to hide. Naturally, this forces the two of them to interact closely with one another. Spunky female-alpha male hijinks ensue.
To this book’s credit, the identity of the criminal will probably come as a bit of a surprise. But the whole setup of the case is so contrived that it’s quite hard to care about the mystery. The victims behave in extremely improbable ways, and the criminal’s motivation, although convincing enough in itself, is handled with very little subtlety.
Even more contrived and two-dimensional are the characterizations. Mattie (did I mention that she’s very, very spunky?) makes my teeth hurt. She talks like a caricature of a girl from the Wild West; every other word she utters is “dang” or “skunk” or some expression related to the raising, caretaking or roping of cattle. She speeds around in motorcars, is intimate friends with people like Edison and Roosevelt and is passionate about women’s suffrage — which is ironic, considering her friendship with Roosevelt, who was known to have spouted some wonderfully misogynistic sentiments. She spouts spiels against corsets at teatime (in mixed company, no less) but raises no eyebrows; in fact everyone joins in the lively discussion. She stomps around and her black eyes snap and sparkle endlessly. She is the embodiment of every single stereotype about the Spunky American Heroine. She is unbearable.
Cheyne is equally improbable. He’s handsome and intelligent and sexy. He escapes the tyranny of his brutish father by becoming a soldier, yet he has the sensitive soul of an artist and is a discerning patron of the arts. He is a fantastic businessman, and on top of it all, Scotland Yard depends on him to help solve unsolvable mysteries. But like most alpha heroes, his intelligence and discernment fly out almost every time he sees the heroine and he shows a surprising capability for venom and conclusion-jumping. Though his speech patterns are marginally better than Mattie’s, he still sounds more like an American talking with a bad English accent than the son of a duke, liberally peppering his speech with expressions like “bloke” and “old man.”
But worst of all is the oversimplification of British and American society. Almost everyone who’s British and aristocratic is stupid, obnoxious, useless, or some combination of all three. Cheyne’s father, in particular, is a spectacular example of an almost ridiculously villainous character. The man honestly has no redeeming qualities and is so bestial that he’s almost funny. Constant comparisons are made between America, that brave new land, and England, which is corrupt and rotting. No doubt aristocrats have contributed more than their fair share of noxious idiots to the world, but the constant harangue against them combined with the never-ending praise about American freedom and ingenuity is tiresome.
Overall, this book is a standard “I hate you but I want to boink you anyway” romance made worse by choppy writing and an almost complete lack of subtlety. You would do well to pass this one by. Your teeth will probably thank you for it.