Something about intrepid heroines, brooding heroes, remote estates, and rumors of dark doings will always have a special place in my heart. The best gothic romances I’ve read have a certain spark about them that gave me the shivers – but in a good way. With Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark, Donna Lea Simpson comes close. However, some slowness in the plotting bogs things down a bit and keeps this one from being a true keeper.
When Lady Anne Addison receives a summons to Yorkshire from her terrified friend Lydia, she packs her bags and heads there as quickly as she can. The overwrought Lydia claims that werewolves prowl the grounds of the remote Darkefell estate. While the more practical Anne finds herself skeptical about this assertion, she does worry about Lydia – as well as feel intrigued about the situation.
Things go awry when Anne arrives to find no one there to meet her. The local postmaster reacts with horror when he learns Anne’s destination, and she finds herself hiking up to Darkefell on her own. The hike proves to be a harrowing trip in which Anne stumbles across a murdered young woman. When she finally arrives at Darkefell, she is met not with welcome but with suspicion and a rather aggressive interrogation by the Marquess of Darkefell, Lydia’s brother-in-law.
As Anne settles in at Darkefell, things do start to get interesting. It is obvious that something secretive is occurring and Anne’s determination to figure out what is going on brings her into constant contact with Tony, the Marquess. This leads to some rather sharp repartee between the two, which gradually softens into something decidedly more good-natured. In the best moments of the book, one can see why Tony and Anne feel drawn to one another. Though Tony can be overbearing, he is fundamentally a decent person and exerts a believable magnetism over others. Anne, on the other hand, is described convincingly as plain and somewhat awkward, but she is loyal to those she trusts and loves, and her inquisitive nature and direct manner intrigue Tony. The more he sees Anne in action, the more attractive she becomes to him.
The writing sometimes feels rather stilted, though. At times this bogged down the flow of the book because it seemed as though many words were expended with the end result being that nothing of real consequence was happening. In addition, Anne’s investigation methods make her seem more like a busybody than a thoughtful investigator at times while the reader is given little insight into her thought process, and this sets up a little too much distance between story and reader. Still, when things did come together, it made for good reading. Simpson excels at planting small details in her story that later prove to be significant. For instance, there is a scene in which Tony gives Anne a bouquet of purple flowers and there is a touching significance to the gesture that observant readers will pick up on right away. These small details throughout the story add a richness to it – and they kept me going through the slow spots.
This book is intended as part of a trilogy following the same main characters. This allows the author time to develop Anne and Tony’s relationship more slowly than in many romances, and she makes good use of it. The slow growth from meeting to friendship to deeper regard feels realistic given the circumstances and the personalities involved, and I enjoyed seeing a book in which the romantic relationship was not rushed artificially. At times Tony is a little too overbearing and Anne comes off too much like an 18th century version of Miss Marple, but the relationship still rang true.
However, in addition to acting like a complete nimwit, Anne’s friend Lydia also appears and disappears a little too conveniently during the book and that rather jerked me out of the story. Her role in the story seemed a little too pat. In spite of these weaknesses, the suspense plot did intrigue me at its best moments and I did rather enjoy the rather languid, sweet romance. I suspect that things may pick up a bit more in the later books of the series, but the first book does not stand on its own quite so well. Had the book been more evenly plotted and written, I would recommend it, but as it is, the end result strikes me as slightly better than average.
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