The Sinister Spinster
I picked up The Sinister Spinster, because it involved foreign diplomacy with a spot of spying and detecting. While there are a plethora of Regency historical romances involving spying by the nobility, diplomacy is an under-utilized plotline. An alliance with Russia in 1814 in the wake of Napoléon’s destructive path through Europe was of crucial importance to international relations, so I was hoping to see more politics and not the murder mystery that this book focused on.
Miss Elizabeth Mattingale is a young companion to Lady Derring, who runs her ragged from morning to night on errands large and spurious. With no family to support her following her father’s emigration to America, Elizabeth has no choice but to ruthlessly suppress her feelings of frustration and submit to Lady Derring’s dictates.
Adam Darrach, the Marquess of Falconer, is hoping to enlist the support of Earl of Derring in the matter of the upcoming visit to London by the Czar of Russia. When, during his visit to the earl’s Kent estate, he sees Miss Mattingale much abused by the lady of the house as well as by the earl’s heir and his friends, he finds his temper in a constant simmer as much as he finds his attention snagged by Elizabeth.
I really liked that Adam is cognizant of the vast gulf between his station and Elizabeth’s. So many cross-class romances ignore this and the way the power differential affects the lesser party.
That he now thought of her as Elizabeth as easily as he thoughts of her as Miss Mattingale was another thing that troubled him, for it indicated that he had crossed one of the lines of intimacy. It was better – safer, he amended with a brutal flash of honesty – to keep the barrier of propriety between them. Any hint of anything untoward between them was certain to end in disaster for her, and he was too fond of her to allow that to happen.
But of course this is a romance, and while actions can be policed, feelings can be unruly and uncontrollable. At times, the conundrum that Elizabeth presents – with her independent nature flashing through her otherwise subservient demeanor – makes Adam want to demand answers from her, about her past and about her father, but a lifetime of reticence makes him proceed carefully in his dealings with her.
Into this swirling eddy of emotions walks one Prince Peter Alexander Bronyeskin of Russia, also known to Elizabeth as Alexi. His enthusiastic greeting and obvious fondness for Elizabeth pierce Adam’s heart with talons of jealously and suspicion. Is Elizabeth a spy? Is she Alexi’s lover? How far has Alexi taken her into his confidence?
In the meantime, the earl’s heir, William, and his reprehensible friends, Derwent and Colburt, have formed an unholy coterie to play a prank on Elizabeth to pay her back for not indulging them in their efforts to alleviate their ennui. They liberate a few documents from the earl’s private diplomatic box with the intention of planting them to deliberately implicate her in treasonous activities. Elizabeth is exonerated of the theft when nothing in unearthed in a search of her room. However, suspicions and gossip have a way of condemning even the innocent.
Unknown to his two friends, Colburt has confided the truth about the theft to one other person. When Colburt is found dead with a stiletto to the heart, the blame falls on Elizabeth. After all, if she could be a thief, it only stands to reason that she could be a murderer as well. But Elizabeth is determined not to be a victim. She, along with Elinore, the Duke of Creshton’s daughter, embark on a scheme of detective work to clear Elizabeth’s name. That Adam had offered marriage to Elinore a few years ago initially served to cause some friction between the two women before their mutual liking alleviates it.
I had supposed that Adam would have more of an upper hand in unmasking the murderer given his skills as a diplomat and his feelings for Elizabeth. Instead, it is she who proves to be the more competent. This role-reversal was interesting at first, but just as the first half of the book is measured, deliberate and sophisticated, the second half of the book is chaotic and, at times, farcical. The reason for Alexi’s arrival in Kent goes unexplained in this story as does his role in the Anglo-Russian Alliance. So the focus of the story is on the probable spies who spirited away the secret documents and the mystery surrounding Colburt’s death.
The Sinister Spinster had great promise and I’d initially expected to be awarding it a grade in the B range, but the repeated imprecations Elizabeth hurls at Adam in the second half, while interesting at first – showing her to be unimpressed by his consequence – quickly degenerated into a mark against her character, as well as ultimately showing Adam to be somewhat weak for allowing this verbal abuse. In addition, the cosmopolitan and debonair man depicted at the beginning of the book deteriorates into a hackneyed facsimile towards the end, rendering his characterisation inconsistent and unbelievable. These developments brought the grade down to a C, and it’s not a book I would recommend.
A note to the reader: The book was originally published in 2001 under the penname Carolyn Madison, but was republished in e-format by Joan Overfield in 2014.