Mad About the Marquess
This is the first full-length novel in Elizabeth Essex’s Highland Brides series, and takes place some two years after the events of the prequel novella, Mad for Love which I reviewed here. Some of the elements I particularly enjoyed about the novella are present here – the sprightliness of the writing, the warmth and the humour, for instance – but I confess that I actually found Mad About the Marquess difficult to rate for a number of reasons.
Lady Quince Winthrop – her father is a famous botanist who named all his daughters after plants – is nineteen years old, beautiful, vivacious, headstrong and reckless. For the best part of three years she has been stealing from the wealthy citizens of Edinburgh and giving the proceeds to the poor – although her stealing is more akin to that of a magpie in that she picks up all the shiny stuff that people carelessly misplace and leave behind, snuffboxes, fans and the like. Her main tenet is that what’s important about stealing isn’t so much what, how or why she steals, but who she steals from – as choosing the wrong mark could lead to discovery. The thing is, that no sooner does she think that than she goes against it by determining to steal the silver buttons from the coat of Alasdair Colquhoun, who is exactly the sort of man she knows she should avoid.
Alasdair, who inherited the title of Marquess of Cairn upon the recent death of his grandfather, has returned to Edinburgh after five years in London where he has made a name for himself in political circles. Quince last saw him years ago when he courted one of her sisters, although she remembers him being much more carefree and open than he appears to be now. His reason for returning home is twofold; one is to assume the responsibilities of his title and the other is because he has been asked to investigate the series of petty thefts that have been plaguing Edinburgh society for the last few years.
The sparks fly between the couple right from the start; Quince and Alasdair are intensely attracted to each other and their witty sparring is sexually charged right from the outset. Most of the time, their quickfire exchanges are delightful, and Ms Essex very wisely keeps the foreplay verbal until much later in the book. There’s the real sense that that the “flibbertigibbet” Quince has met her match in the handsome, red-headed marquess, but when something happens to cause Quince to step up her activities, Alasdair is faced with the prospect of hunting down a petty thief AND the newly appeared gentleman of the road, Monsieur Minuit. Things take a serious turn when rumour has the mysterious highwayman bearing a physical resemblance to Alasdair and Quince’s attempt to divert suspicion from him goes badly awry.
I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because on some level I did; but I had too many issues with it to be able to give it a wholehearted recommendation. Whereas I felt that Mad for Love was rather rushed, with too much material and not enough space, the opposite is true here. There is a lot of padding, which usually takes the form of Alasdair and Quince trading quips and then snogging each other’s faces off; and I’m afraid that after the first one or two sessions, I started to skim them because I wanted to move on with the story. Alasdair is the perfect foil for Quince; a deliciously sexy and authoritative hero with a wicked sense of humour, but he’s almost pushed into the background for much of the story because the focus is so firmly on Quince and her hair-brained schemes. Reference is made to a scandal in his past, but it’s not fully explored and feels like a wasted opportunity; in fact, Alasdair himself is rather a wasted opportunity. He had the potential to be a terrific hero but isn’t given the chance to really shine.
My main problem with the story, however, is the heroine. While Ms Essex is initially careful to keep Quince’s thievery within the bounds of possibility, her sudden decision to up the ante makes no sense and strays too far into TSTL territory for my taste. And when she herself, on several occasions, admits that she doesn’t steal for altruistic motives, but because she likes the thrill it gives her, I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think. Was I supposed to cheer for a young woman who refused to bow to the constraints society wanted to impose upon her, or was I supposed to feel sorry for the poor, bored, little rich girl? I don’t know, but what I actually thought was closer to “what a pain in the arse!”
I wanted to like Mad About the Marquess more than I did, which is why I struggled to grade it. In its favour, the writing is strong, there is plenty of humour and Quince and Alasdair have great chemistry; but on the downside there is a villain who is little more than an afterthought, readers will need a large capacity to suspend their disbelief and there is lot of repetition. I got fed up with the constant references to Quince’s “magnificent breasts”, the myriad variations on “holy iced macaroons!” as her favourite swear (my Kindle counted forty-three of them) were incredibly irritating, and if I’d used “by jimble” as the basis for a drinking game, I’d be unconscious by now.
Mind you, I did think that “holy painted trollops!” had some merit.