The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla
Reading the latest installment in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series is a pleasure I savor each summer. It was no different this year, and The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla proved a charming read.
The novel is set more than a year after the one that comes before, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, and it starts with a bored debutante. In her second season, Sally Fitzhugh (sister of Turnip) yearns for some excitement and gets it when, following a dare, she enters the garden of the mysterious Duke of Belliston, reputedly a vampire. The Duke is certainly a romantic figure and very sharp of tongue, if not of tooth, and Sally is thoroughly intrigued. During a ball a few days later she is witness to an enigmatic message being passed to the duke which lures him to the terrace. Nothing if not intrepid (and nosy), Sally insists on accompanying him, and they discover a corpse. The duke is obviously meant to be framed for the murder, and Sally decides to help him to find the true culprit.
Mysteries abound in this novel. There is the duke who defies convention and about whom rumors fly. His parents died of poisoning twelve years earlier, but by whose hand is not clear yet. (The fact that I spotted that person a while before the protagonists do did not spoil my enjoyment.) His tutor disappeared, and the duke himself spent many years abroad. At the same time, London is in a fever of gothic fervor following the huge success of Miss Gwen’s first novel, every rumor is picked up and magnified at breathtaking speed. That part of the novel is plain fun.
I also liked Sally and Lucien, the duke. Both are very young, however, and somehow they are given less depth than I am used to from Willig protagonists. Sally is capable and courageous, but also very opinionated, meddling and extremely self-assured. She has a moment of self-doubt, but it quickly passes, and it is made clear at the end of the novel that she is a Lady Bracknell in the making. Lucien, on the other hand, while perfectly delightful and not a pushover, not even to Sally, has a deeply traumatic past which is resolved far too easily when he decides he has been in a snit for too long – I’d call it PTSD – and that’s it, he is just fine. Too easy. Perhaps it’s the fact that I got used to more mature lead characters from Willig’s last few novels, but I was not quite satisfied with these two. It’s telling that I would have preferred to hear more about Eloise and Colin, who have to tackle a long distance relationship before Skype (remember?), and who go through some very interesting developments.
Now before you think I didn’t like the novel, I did. The repartee is snappy and spot-on as usual, the relationships between the characters (including a number of earlier Pink Carnation characters who make a cameo appearance) just work, and some of the descriptions – the theatre, the duchess’s garden, the folly – are marvellously evocative.
In an interview at the back of the novel Lauren Willig says that The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is the second-last Pink Carnation novel, with Jane’s book to follow. But there may be some spin-offs, which I truly hope she will write, as I enjoy this series more than most.
The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is a delightful, highly entertaining book which I read in one sitting. If it lacks a certain depth, it mostly makes up for this with plain fun. I recommend it, and I expect that those of you who follow the series will now look forward eagerly to the final installment – hopefully to be published next summer.