The Secret of the India Orchid
Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Secret of the India Orchid appealed to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, much as I enjoy historical romances set in Europe, I’m always happy to see ones sent in more far-flung locations; and secondly, the premise of a dashing spy forced to conceal his true nature and purpose beneath the façade of a wastrel in order to protect his nearest and dearest is a trope that I enjoy when done well. Sadly, however, neither of those elements is particularly well-executed, and, together with weak characterisation and poor plotting, made for a plodding, insipid read overall.
Anthony Blake, Earl of Wilshire has been in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot, for some time and is about to ask for permission to court her when his former boss and spymaster, Lord Braxton tells him that he must undertake one, last mission. Anthony, who was relieved to get out of the spying game a couple of years earlier upon assuming his title, is not best pleased at being drafted back into service, but when Braxton tells him of the theft of the Janus Document – which contains sensitive information about British agents, their families, their habits and every aspect of their lives, any of which could potentially be used as leverage against them – Anthony reluctantly agrees to retrieve it.
Two years later, still heartbroken over Anthony’s sudden departure and wanting to get away from her memories of him in England, Sophia lands in India, intending to spend some time there under the sponsorship of Lady Pilkington. She is, however, destined not to be able to use distance to lessen her attachment to Anthony because he’s recently arrived in Bombay on the next leg of his tour of carefree fun and frolic (as she thinks), and in reality still on the trail of the Janus Document. All Braxton could tell him about the theft was that he believed it had been perpetrated by someone who worked for him, Harold Miller. Anthony has received word that Miller’s uncle, a sea captain, is a guest of the Pilkington’s, hence his presence in Bombay. He believes the nephew may have passed the document to Captain Miller and intends to meet with him and interrogate him, but before he can do so, the captain is murdered and the contents of Lord Pilkington’s safe mysteriously disappear.
With the help of his friend, Captain Dylan Stuart of the First Light Cavalry, Anthony now has to find a murderer as well as the missing document, but in order to maintain his cover as a carefree wastrel, has to make it seem as though Stuart is conducting the investigation and he’s just along for the ride, which annoys him no end. Almost as much as it annoys him to see Sophia singled out for attention by other men. And Sophia, who was deeply hurt by Anthony’s assertions (in his “Dear John” letter) that he viewed her as nothing more than a sister and good friend, twists the knife further when she asks him to help her to select a husband from among her admirers.
The problems with The Secret of the India Orchid are many, and add up to this; it’s a clichéd, dull book with no action, no sense of time or place and no romance to speak of. Anthony and Sophia are in love from the beginning and stay that way; there is nothing in the writing to suggest their attitude towards each other has changed during their two year separation apart from Sophia’s slightly sarcastic responses to him when they meet again, and their relationship is pretty static. All that happens is that Anthony finally tells her the truth (and I confess I did rather enjoy it when Sophia refuses to believe him at first) and they return to their former lovey-doveyness; and as characters, they’re bland and too good to be true. In terms of the setting, other than the mention of curry, the odd Indian custom and the use of Indian names, there’s nothing to suggest the location and quite honestly, the book could have been set anywhere. The mystery is weak and its solution depends on an overheard conversation; the identity of one of the perpetrators seems to be the result of drawing names from a hat, and the other is telegraphed from a mile away.
Ms. Campbell Allen’s writing is decent, but that can’t compensate for the books’ other deficiencies. I read it so you don’t have to – give it a miss.