The eponymous duke in this fourth book in Kerrigan Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series is Collin Talmage, Duke of Trenwyth. We met him briefly in the previous book, The Highlander, where we learned that he is a formidable soldier, rumoured to have been both a spy and an assassin. Fans of Ms. Byrne’s will undoubtedly find everything they have come to expect from her books here; lyrical writing, strong characterisation, a larger-than-life hero tormented by the demons of his past, a self-reliant heroine who is prepared to go toe-to-toe with him, no matter how much his sheer masculinity and aura of barely leashed power attract and frighten her; and an element of mystery with a gruesome side, and a look at some of the darker, seedier aspects of Victorian London.
The Duke opens with Trenwyth – Cole to his friends – at a spectacularly low ebb. He has just acceded to his dukedom, but has done so at the cost of losing the rest of his family in an accident. Everyone insists on congratulating him while he just wants to grieve – he is under orders to leave England for an undisclosed location and his next mission the following day
He just wants to forget it all for one night. At the Bare Kitten Gin and Dance Hall, he pays a small fortune for a night with one of the girls – Ginny – who isn’t really Ginny at all. She’s Imogen Pritchard, a nurse at St. Margaret’s Hospital, who works as a serving maid at the Kitten at night in order to pay off debts incurred by her late father. Unlike the other girls who work there, Imogen is no whore, but she has no choice but to do as she is told and bed the duke. Imogen can’t deny that he’s an attractive man; he has the face of a Greek God and a body to match, but what attracts her even more is the aura of sadness that surrounds him. Their encounter is unexpectedly tender, Trenwyth tending to her pleasure as much as his own, and taking comfort from her presence.
Around a year later, London is abuzz with the news that the Duke of Trenwyth – who had been thought dead – has returned to England. He is delivered to St. Margaret’s Hospital at the request of his cousin, the Queen, but his condition is serious and he is not expected to live. After a few days, Imogen suspects he has been misdiagnosed, but the doctor in charge won’t listen to her, so she approaches another doctor – who agrees with her assessment and saves the duke’s life. Unfortunately, however, Imogen’s involvement leads to her instant dismissal.
Things go from bad to worse when, later the same night, she is attacked by a drunken patron at the Kitten. She stabs him in self-defence, and runs off believing she has killed him – then sneaks back into the hospital intending to steal some clean clothes and some money from one of the patients. She had always had a good relationship with the elderly Earl of Anstruther and hates herself for stooping so low as to steal from him, but she’s desperate. In keeping with the sort of luck Imogen has been having, things don’t to go plan – but this time, her fortunes take a turn for the better.
Fast forward two years, and Cole is back in London, restored to health physically, but inside he’s broken, full of bitterness and rage, haunted by the terrible things he’s seen and done. The one memory he cherishes of the past is of the night he spent with Ginny; his recollections of her were the only thing that kept him going after he was captured and tortured, and he is now actively searching for her. At the same time, he’s also incredibly frustrated by the antics of his next door neighbour, the lovely, widowed Countess of Anstruther, a scheming harpy who tricked her sick husband into marriage not long before he died and left her his entire fortune. Not only that, she dares to take in whores, unwed mothers and other unfortunates, using her home as the base for her charity cases – and Cole is outraged that she is turning one of the finest houses in London into a home for delinquents.
This version of Cole is not a likeable character. He’s haughty, dictatorial, rude, and sometimes downright cruel, such as when he insults Imogen in front of a dinner table full of guests at a charity event. But Imogen is no longer the scared young woman with no options who shared his bed, and while the tension that radiates from Trenwyth is alarming, she makes it clear she isn’t prepared to just put up with his insults. She is relieved that he hasn’t recognised her as Ginny, but she is also saddened because she can see no trace in him of the man who showed such tenderness to a woman he’d bought and paid for.
When, the morning after the event, a woman is found dead in Imogen’s garden, Chief Inspector Sir Carlton Morley of Scotland Yard (and Ms. Byrne, please stop referring to him as “Sir Morley” – it should be “Sir Carlton”) and his colleague, Imogen’s neighbour, Christopher Argent (The Hunter) are called in to investigate. Evidence proves the woman was murdered, and other clues point towards the fact that she is not the killer’s first victim. She also bears a certain resemblance to Imogen – and before long it’s clear that Imogen could also be in danger. While Morley, Argent and Cole are putting together the pieces of the puzzle, Cole and Imogen are gradually becoming closer, his initial antagonism towards her turning into an almost overwhelming attraction. Yet in his heart it’s still Ginny he wants… or is it? There’s an interesting dichotomy here as Cole struggles to reconcile his growing feelings for Imogen with what he feels for Ginny – although I have to say that it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that he could have been so strongly affected by one night with an unknown woman that he’d be so desperate to find her three years later.
The good things about The Duke are very good. The writing is lush and strong (if a little purple-tinged in places), Imogen is an independent, confident heroine, the murder mystery is nicely suspenseful and Ms. Byrne once again does a spectacular job of putting the reader right in the middle of the dank, dirty backstreets of London and showing the truly horrible situations faced by so many women at the time. I enjoyed the book and the storyline kept me eagerly turning the pages, but I was taken out of the story once too often; by a coincidence too far (Cole just happening to be sent to the hospital where Imogen worked, for example, or his ending up living next door to her) or because of over-long passages of introspection which meant the pacing was somewhat uneven. And then there’s the fact that Cole is so downright unlikeable for almost all of the book. Yes, he endured terrible suffering and torture, and it’s natural that he would have been changed by those experiences. But he’s so angry and so bitter that it’s difficult to see him ever letting go of those things and being able to live a normal life.
And then there’s this. I said back in my review of The Hunter that I hoped Morley would get his own story, and it certainly seems as though Ms. Byrne is heading in that direction given the hints she drops in this book about a past tragedy and Argent’s sharp observations that his boss is not at all what he seems. The trouble was that the moment Morley appeared on the page, he grabbed my attention so strongly that I wanted to read about him more than I did about Cole and Imogen. That bodes well for the next book in the series, for sure, but it’s never a good thing when a secondary character eclipses the hero in his own book.
All that said, I’m going to give The Duke a qualified recommendation because in spite of the reservations I’ve expressed, and the fact that I really couldn’t warm to the hero, the story pulled me and kept me entertained. It’s a flawed book, but this series continues to be one of the most unusual and intensely readable around; and while The Highwayman has yet to be surpassed in my estimation, there is nonetheless plenty to enjoy in this instalment.