Tall, Dark and Wicked
Tall, Dark and Wicked is the second book in Madeline Hunter’s Wicked trilogy, and focuses on Lord Ywain (Ives) Hemingford, younger brother of the Duke of Aylesbury. As was the case in the previous book, (His Wicked Reputation) the author has very skilfully blended together an intriguing story that is rich in historical detail and a sensual romance between two attractive protagonists who, at first glance, seem to be somewhat mismatched.
Ives is a man who knows who he is, what he wants and how to get it. He is the epitome of cool, calm and collected, his emotional detachment, logical mind and keen intelligence serving to make him one of the most highly respected and successful barristers in the country.
His detachment is shaken one evening however when a shabbily dressed but striking young woman suddenly appears at his house and asks him to act for her, or rather, for her father, who has been thrown into Newgate on counterfeiting charges. Such a thing is incredibly serious; putting counterfeit money into circulation is an attempt to debase the coinage and upset the economy, and is almost tantamount to treason. England has only recently emerged from a long and costly war and is struggling to deal with its aftermath – lots of returning soldiers with no jobs to go to, unrest caused by food shortages and the introduction of mechanisation has already led to riots (most famously the one at Peterloo in 1819), and the Home Department (in charge of national security) is becoming increasingly paranoid and resorting to underhand methods in an attempt to clamp down on any activity they believe to be suspicious.
Ives can’t deny the sudden fascination he feels for Padua Belvoir, but acting on impulse is not his way. His intimate relationships are conducted almost like business transactions; his mistresses are experienced women and the relationships are negotiations rather than seductions. That way, both parties know where they stand and what to expect. But Ives finds himself behaving unexpectedly out of character when it comes to Padua; he’s attracted to her intelligence and strength of character, but there’s also something not quite right about her father’s case. He has been asked by the Prince Regent to act as the prosecutor for the Crown, so to become involved with her could ruin him professionally. Yet when he learns from one of the government’s agents that Padua’s visits to her father in prison have attracted the wrong sort of attention, he is unable to walk away and begins to investigate further.
I have to say at this point that I have no idea how legal matters worked at the beginning of the 19th century and whether Ives, as a barrister, would have been able or expected to conduct such an investigation into the validity of the charges or the culpability of the suspect. But Ms Hunter’s research into the historical background of the novel is sound, and I imagine the same is true of her research into the workings of the legal profession at the time.
Padua is an interesting character, a well-educated young woman who dreams of attending university in Italy, where there are a small number of such institutions which will admit women to a course of study. Since the death of her mother, she has had no contact with her father and did not, in fact, have the slightest idea where he was living, only knowing that he was in London. Her feelings towards him are a mixture of resentment, frustration and what I can only describe as thwarted love; she visits him in prison and takes him books and food, yet he continually rebuffs her, insisting she leaves him alone and showing no affection or gratitude whatsoever for her visits. In spite of this, however, Padua remains determined to help him, sure that he has somehow been duped or forced into doing something against his will and judgement. I have to admit that there were times I wanted to shake some sense into one or both of them; but Padua’s loyalty is one of the qualities Ives most admires about her, and I suppose her determination to do the right thing by her father, regardless of his attitude towards her is admirable.
It’s a refreshing change to encounter an aristocratic hero who works for a living, and this is one of a handful of historicals I’ve read where the hero is a member of the legal profession. Ives is a sexy hero (although not at all wicked unless one counts his desire to be obeyed without question in the bedroom ;-) ), but what struck me most strongly about him were his kindness and his sense of fair play.
The romance between Ives and Padua is a passionate one, and when they are out of bed, they’re a pair well-matched in determination and intelligence. My one complaint is that while the storyine concerning Padua’s father is very well set up, with a superbly created atmosphere of menace about it, it loses a bit of steam once we discover the truth about Belvoir’s mysterious inheritance and how it relates to the counterfeiting gang. Even so, the plotline is well-executed and the pacing picks up again as we head towards the dénouement.
There is much to enjoy in Tall, Dark and Wicked. The relationship between Ives and his brothers is very well drawn and even though they are constantly needling each other, the reader is left in no doubt that these men are bound by strong ties of affection and would do anything for each other. Padua is an engaging heroine, one for whom life hasn’t always been easy, but who is determined to make the most of it, embracing and enjoying her time with Ives, no matter the difference in their stations and the likelihood their relationship will be a short-lived one. Ms Hunter has made excellent use of historical detail in her story, and the plot is generally well paced and reaches a satisfying conclusion; I particularly like the way in which she explores the idea of corruption among those who are supposed to uphold the law, and considers how such people have arrived at a point at which they are prepared to subvert the rules to their own ends.
I enjoyed reading Tall, Dark and Wicked and would definitely recommend it to fans of well-written, intelligent romance in which the historical background is more than just window-dressing.