Lady Notorious is the fourth in Theresa Romain’s Royal Rewards series, although we’ve moved on from the initial premise of the first two books which concerned the hunt for several chests full of gold sovereigns which were stolen from the Royal Mint. Lady Notorious picks up a plot-thread from the previous book, Lady Rogue, and re-introduces readers to the Benton twins, Charles – a Bow Street Runner – and his twin sister, Cassandra, who is a sort of ‘unofficial’ Runner, openly working alongside him.
The plot in Lady Rogue was kick-started when the Duke of Ardmore was set to sell a forged painting as part payment of gambling debts owed to a notorious London crime lord. As Lady Notorious opens, we learn the duke is still deeply in debt – thanks to his addiction to the gaming tables – and his heir George, Lord Northbrook, is able to do little more than watch as his father continues to reduce the once affluent dukedom to a pile of debt. Debt that will be George’s when he eventually inherits the title.
George is prompted to hire the Bentons – brother and sister – after he discovers the existence of something called a tontine, a kind of wager, placed decades earlier by ten gentleman including his father. Part investment scheme and part wager, the funds (and interest) are left untouched until all but one of the group is dead – and the last man standing receives the full amount of the fortune. The tontine has existed for almost forty years at this point, and while a couple of its members died some years ago, George becomes concerned for his father’s safety when he learns that three of the other ‘investors’ have died under mysterious circumstances within the last year.
As he lives under his father’s roof, George is well placed to protect the duke, so he arranges for Cass and Charles to be taken into the household of his godfather, Lord Deverell, another member of the tontine. When the book opens, Cass is part way through another late-night vigil when the house is plunged into uproar. Lady Deverell starts screaming and once the rest of the household is roused, Charles is discovered to have broken his leg (most likely falling out of the lady’s bedroom window!), and Lord Deverell is found sprawled on the sofa in his study, passed out from drink and with a serious knife wound to his leg.
It seems the threat to the lives of the remaining members of the tontine is very real, and George is determined to get to the bottom of it. With Charles out of action, the bulk of the investigation is going to fall to Cass – which is par for the course really, as she normally does all the work anyway – but installing her as a servant in one household or other is clearly not going to help much. So George suggests instead that she pose as a distant relative; a notorious cousin newly arrived from the Continent who will be best placed to hear all the gossip, the secrets women don’t talk about in front of men which might have some relevance to the case. And if that cousin is fashionable and a bit fast, all the better, as she’s bound to be at the centre of a swirl of gossip herself.
This set-up will, of course, allow George and Cass to spend time together and explore the attraction that’s been simmering between them from the start, and their interactions and witty exchanges are some of the highlights of the book. The plot concerning the possible threat to the members of the tontine is fairly thinly stretched, but my biggest issue with the novel as a whole was the concept of Cass as an unofficial investigator/thief-taker. I give a big thumbs-up to Ms. Romain for writing about non-aristocratic characters, but Cass being openly accepted in her role by everyone she works with, including the magistrate, was difficult to swallow given that the story is set in 1819 and even a lower-class female would have had limited options. (And of course, Cass isn’t really lower-class; her grandmother was a gentleman’s daughter who married beneath her, this making it just about acceptable for her to eventually find her HEA with a duke’s heir.) I liked her intelligence and resourcefulness and the exploration of the difficulties of her relationship with Charles is really well done, but I had to ignore the implausibility of her ‘profession’ for most of the book, which did put a bit of a damper on things.
On the positive side, however, is George, who is a simply lovely hero. He’s charming, possessed of a dry sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he’s also a kind, conscientious man who wants to take care of those he loves but doesn’t quite know how. He lived the dissipated life of many a ducal heir until his mother’s near death from a laudanum overdose pulled him up short, and even though he soon came to the realisation that nothing he could do was going to make any difference to either of his parents’ addictions, he still feels guilty about that. He attempts to fill his time experimenting with his collection of camera obscurae and trying to fix images using sunlight and chemicals – an unusual hobby to be sure, and one that turned out to have no bearing on the mystery plot, which made me wonder why the author chose to include it.
Lady Notorious is a difficult book to rate because I have such mixed feelings about it. I liked the central characters (especially George!) and their interactions, but ultimately, didn’t feel there was a strong connection between them – and I found it difficult to get past the idea of the heroine as an investigator at this period in time. The writing is excellent as always and the familial relationships – George’s with his parents and Cass’ with Charles – are well done, but the mystery is lacklustre and while I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t completely invested either. I’m going with a cautious recommendation – the good things about the book are good, but its weaknesses mean I can’t give it a whole-hearted endorsement.