The Miss Mirren Mission
The Miss Mirren Mission is a fast-paced, entertaining story that pairs an intelligent, determined social reformer with a reclusive, somewhat grouchy earl – who also happens to be a crack spy. It’s this author’s first foray into historical romance, and while it does have a number of flaws and inconsistencies, I enjoyed it because her two main characters are engaging and there is a warmth and authenticity to their interactions that lends real depth to their romance.
Eric Woodley, Earl of Blackstone, is a second son who never wanted to inherit a title. Desperate to get away from parents who never held him in much affection and to escape the shadow cast over his home by his mothers’ mental illness, he joined the army and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. Haunted by the death of his commanding officer, and invalided out of the army after losing a hand, Blackstone was recruited by the British government and now undertakes covert work for them in their continuing efforts to defeat the French.
In order to retain focus and to keep himself aloof from the sorts of emotional entanglements that could distract him from his purpose, Blackstone has cultivated a reputation as something of a bad-tempered recluse. So when he decides to throw a small house-party, there’s only one possible conclusion to be drawn by the marriage-minded young ladies of the ton (and their mamas) – the earl is in the market for a wife. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The gathering has been convened as a way of engaging one Mr Manning – a trader known also to be a smuggler – who Blackstone believes has connections to Le Cafard (the cockroach), the French agent he has been trying to apprehend for years.
Blackstone is more than a little put out when he discovers that one of his guests – Manning’s daughter – has arrived a day early with her cousin, who is also her companion. And he is further unsettled when he discovers this companion to be none other than Miss Emily Mirren, the daughter of his former commanding officer. Still haunted by the manner of Captain Mirren’s death, the earl has taken pains to avoid Emily over the years, running from the guilt he feels at having left the man to die alone.
Emily is an intelligent and outspoken young woman who is dedicated to social reform. Left to the guardianship of her uncle – Manning – upon the death of her father, she remains at her cousin’s side, even though she is no longer her uncle’s ward. Knowing Manning continues to buy and sell slaves, despite the fact that the practice is now illegal in England, she is determined to bring him to book by whatever means necessary. Unfortunately, however, her desire to do so brings her into direct conflict with Blackstone, who can’t afford for Emily to expose Manning before his own investigation has led to the capture of Le Cafard. In order to try to head her off, and for her own protection, Blackstone proposes marriage, but Emily turns him down, insisting she doesn’t want to marry as that will mean the loss of her independence. The earl is annoyed at her refusal, but won’t give up, telling himself it’s because he’s worked too long and too hard to have his schemes ruined by a headstrong woman.
The first half of the story concentrates principally on the burgeoning romance between the brooding earl and the feisty reformer, and it’s by far the best part of the book. During the time they spend together at his estate, Emily and Blackstone become friends and find themselves opening up to the other in a way they never have with anyone else. Their interactions are frequently laced with dry humour and gentle challenge as they circle each other and test the waters of a friendship that is developing into the love neither had ever wanted to find. There’s a tangible spark between them although the love scenes are fairly tame – and I found the use of the “I’m never going to marry so would you mind very much showing me your wedding tackle?” trope to be rather awkward.
The second part of the book is more problematic, however, as the author has crammed so much into her story that there is much that is not sufficiently explored or explained. Blackstone harbours a lot of guilt over the deaths of his mother and brother, as well as for that of Emily’s father, but he seems able to let it go rather easily given he’s spent years beating himself up over them. The mental illness in Blackstone’s family has obviously affected him deeply; Emily’s father was clearly a mentor and father figure to Blackstone, while she is bitter and resentful that he never spent much time with her – these are both elements of the characters’ backstory which are key to their personalities, but which are never fully developed. In fact, the entire second half (or thereabouts) of the book is jam-packed with so many plot-points that the charm of the earlier part – in which Emily and Blackstone spend time together, learning about each other and gradually falling in love – is lost, and the book turns into a fairly ordinary spy story.
That said, however, I would certainly consider reading more historicals by this author, as she clearly has a talent for witty dialogue, the ability to create strong, likeable characters and can craft an interesting story. Taking into account the reservations I’ve set out above, The Miss Mirren Mission is definitely worth a second look if you’re looking to try an author new to the genre.