The Danger of Desire
I can tell you what’s in a book, what I think works, and what doesn’t. It’s much harder to convey the experience of reading that same book. So let me say Elizabeth Essex’s The Danger of Desire has its strengths and flaws. It is also a transcendently pleasurable book to read. There is something distinctive and gorgeous about Ms. Essex’s writing — I really can’t think of any other writer whose prose is as languorously specific as hers. She’s become one of my very favorite writers; I’d looked forward to The Danger of Desire and it did not disappoint.
Ms. Essex has thus far published three loosely linked books. In the first, The Pursuit of Pleasure, she investigates the way secrets compromise love. In the second, A Sense of Sin, she illuminates how passion transforms its lovers. In The Danger of Desire, she plaits those two leitmotifs. This passionate love story between Meggs, a woman who trusts no one, and Hugh, the man who wants to know all of her – heart, body, and soul – is touching, riveting, and well-crafted.
Meggs is, as she says, “a prime filching mort.” She hates being a thief, hates “the insidious cold, the incessant rain, the petty larceny — but hunger had a way of sorting out priorities.” Meggs steals because it was the only option for her — other than whoring – when she and her younger brother Timmy found themselves abandoned on the streets of London years ago. Meggs and Timmy are very good at what they do, and early one morning, they strip a watch and purse from an unsuspecting toff. Although the oblivious mark has no idea the pretty housemaid who bowls him over on Cockspur Street has just relieved him of his “portable chattels,” Naval Captain Hugh McAlden watches Meggs’s “smartly done” theft with “appreciation.”
Hugh, currently recovering from a bad leg wound, wants nothing more than to regain his command of his ship, Dangerous. Hugh went to sea at age twelve; sixteen years later, it’s the life he craves. Vexingly, his injury has made him currently “not fit for command.” On the morning he sees Meggs, he’s just come from the Admiralty where his mentor, Admiral Middleton, offered him a job which, if successfully rendered, will lead to a knighthood for Hugh. The Admiralty Board has a traitor somewhere in its highest level, a treasonous spy sharing highly secret information with the French. The Admiral wants Hugh, within the space of two weeks, to “rout out this traitor and serve him up… trussed and ready for hanging.”
Hugh leaves the meeting, catches Meggs in her act of deft larceny, and decides she is exactly what he needs — he’ll use a thief to catch a thief. He chases her through the London streets, and when he finally has her trapped in a dead-end lane, makes her an offer he thinks she can’t refuse. He tells her he’ll pay her a hundred pounds to steal for him. If she declines, he’ll turn her in to the law. She, suspicious, wary, and afraid, tosses her laundry basket at Hugh, kicks him hard in his wounded thigh, and runs away from him — and, as she does, steals his gold watch. As she escapes, however, she badly injures her hand vaulting over a wall topped with shards of broken glass. When her wound turns septic, she, unable to thieve and thus feed herself and Timmy, seeks out Hugh and agrees to take him up on his offer…for 750 pounds. Hugh, persuaded she’s perfect for his professional needs, agrees to her price. Meggs and Timmy move into Hugh’s home and she and Hugh begin to work together to identify and entrap the traitor.
From the moment they meet, the two are attracted to each other. Hugh who “has been celibate for far too long,” is deeply drawn to Meggs. The first night she sleeps in his house, wrapped in blankets in front of his kitchen fire, he watches her sleep. He is almost shocked to realize that “all he wanted to do, all he craved, was to be able to touch her, this strange, unfathomable girl.” Meggs, who has never had any use for men, finds herself imagining Hugh in his bed: “A picture of him, etched across her brain, colors and all, lying on that bed, tawny and naked as the day was long, looking up at her with those pale, hawk bright eyes.” The sexual courtship between the two, written by Ms. Essex with elegant, intensely sensual prose, is a pleasure to read.
When the two become lovers, Hugh feels his heart and body “align” for the first time in a very long time. He begins to imagine and then work to shape a shared future for himself, Meggs, and Timmy. Hugh’s dream, though, is not Meggs’s. She’s given Hugh her body and heart but is unwilling to give him the truth about her past. For Meggs, the day she stole her first purse, was the day she gave up any hope of a life with a man of Hugh’s class. It was also the day she determined she’d never trust anyone to care for her — the loss in Meggs’s past is so great, the pain of it prevents her from fully sharing herself with Hugh.
I found Ms. Essex’s lovers compelling. Hugh and Meggs are dazzlingly real characters, each layered in ways one expects to find in great literature. I loved their story and cared deeply about their travails and their joys.
I was not as enamored of the suspense plot. Meggs and Hugh figure out quite quickly who the traitor is and he is apprehended with startling ease. For the last third of the novel, the focus is on Meggs, Hugh, and the barriers — external and internal — their love must overcome. Then, in the last few chapters, danger resurfaces and becomes a distraction to the far more absorbing love story.
There are readers for whom both Hugh’s and Meggs’s pasts will test their credulity. Historical purists will flinch at the chronological inaccuracies in Ms. Essex’s tale. (Yes, I know; the first recorded use of the word “Gotcha” didn’t occur until 1974.) The few errors there are didn’t derail my enjoyment of the story. Ms. Essex does a splendiferous job of fashioning Meggs, Hugh, Timmy, as well as the secondary characters. Each has a voice and set of mannerisms that make each distinctive and appealing.
I’ve been a reviewer here at All About Romance for just over a year. In that time I’ve read hundreds of historical romances. Ms. Essex has become, with Julie Anne Long, Joanna Bourne, Anne Mallory, Meredith Duran, and Sherry Thomas, one of my favorite writers of the genre. Her books are, for me, pure reading pleasure. The Danger of Desire isn’t flawless; it is, however, a splendid read.