The Mysterious Miss M
This book tied to win as Best Series Novel in AAR’s 2005 reader poll, and got much buzz last year, so I looked forward to reading it. But it’s much the same fare as found in most historical romances, even if the set-up is more novel. The story starts out with Madeleine, a very young heroine, meeting (and sleeping) with Devlin, her soldier hero, in the course of her duties as a prostitute. (Why are so many Regency heroes named Devlin?) For once, Madeleine enjoys the sex because Devlin is so kind to her and so undemanding. He goes back to war, she has a child, and three years later they happen to meet again when he frequents the same gaming hell. Having beaten the proprietor so soundly at cards, Devlin is offered Madeleine in lieu of his winnings, and he takes pity on her and accepts – which means that he now has to take care of her and, unexpectedly, her maid and daughter. Since he is a younger son with fixed income and gambling tendencies, they immediately have money problems. The only solution that seems to be available to him is to marry so he can come into his inheritance and then be able to support Madeleine and her daughter Linette. Obviously, falling in love with Madeleine causes some complications in bringing this plan to success.
Devlin’s reasons for rescuing Madeleine from the brothel are never satisfactorily explained. It would be understandable, perhaps, if he’d taken her and helped her find another position somewhere. But he makes the commitment to support her, her maid, and her daughter indefinitely knowing he lacks the funds to do so. If he were a saintly man with a history of good deeds, this might make sense, but the only explanation the author gives is that he’s always picked up strays. Strays, maybe, but people? And permanently? It hardly fits his personality.
Similarly, Madeleine’s professional history affects her yet doesn’t. She loathes herself for what she’s done, sees herself as unutterably lowered and unredeemable, yet all of the sex she’s had with untold numbers of men has left her innocence curiously untouched. She doesn’t really care for men, but it takes no time for her to trust Devlin and his man, Bart. She blushes readily. Devlin constantly thinks about how “childlike” and “innocent” she is, just like her daughter, Linette. While she is very young still, few women could survive being pressed into the sex trade with their psychological cherries intact.
Linette, of course, is the perfect child. Beautiful, never whiny or demanding. Grateful for everything Devlin gives her. And she resembles Devlin so strongly that there’s no doubt of paternity. How convenient.
The villain of this piece is the black-mustachioed type. Pure evil, the kind of man who rapes women and would sell children into sexual slavery without a qualm. His presence gives the book the requisite suspense element every Regency historical these days must possess.
The Mysterious Miss M does have its points. Devlin isn’t perfect. He’s bad with money and has little drive to succeed outside of the planned script for his life. Without the motivating factor of True Love and left to his own devices, he’d just as soon gamble and wench. Madeleine, for her part, isn’t just an innocent victim. She acknowledges her part in her downfall, though she takes too much responsibility for it and believes she deserves anything bad that comes her way. Devlin and Madeleine do have some touching moments between them, and readers who enjoy rescue stories will probably like the way Dev comes swooping into the brothel and vows to make three peoples’ lives permanently better.
Still, Gaston’s writing is only competent and there are just too many sunshiny moments coming out of people who have previously been noted for their altruism or philanthropy. What you have here is a wish fulfillment story – no matter how bad life gets, good people will triumph and bad people will meet their downfall. The deus ex machina will see to it.