The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie
The general problem with The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie is that nothing goes quite far enough. There are no wicked deeds. The worlds of the hero and heroine – engineering and spiritualism, respectively – aren’t detailed or thoughtful enough. The characterizations are full of unrealized potential. Although there’s a decent read here, overall the book misses opportunities which would have made it truly special.
Daniel Mackenzie, independently wealthy lord and race car engineer, meets Violet Bastien, fraudulent medium, after a card game places her landlord in his debt. Daniel is immediately fascinated by Violet and the gadgets she uses to create the illusion of spirit presence – but then Violet nearly kills him and, thinking he’s dead, dumps his body and flees for France. Of course the entranced Daniel follows, but beyond the problems of class and Violet’s dubious profession, there are unexpected obstacles lurking in Violet’s past.
What did I like about this book: Basically, it’s a competent execution of everything you’d expect from a historical with UK aristocrat protagonists. The writing is good. Individual scenes are extremely interesting and sprinkled with historical detail. The plot is original, and the obstacles to the HEA are interesting. Readers who particularly go for clever heroes in pursuit will enjoy watching Daniel chase Violet and vanquish both her insecurities and her other problems.
But the book doesn’t rise above competence. There are several missed opportunities for a richer, more immersive story. One of the things I enjoyed about the only other Ashley I’ve read, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, was the thoroughness of Ian’s characterization. At dinner, in the drawing room, in bed – Ian was Ian. (He is still Ian in his cameos here, too, which is nice). Disappointingly, Violet and Daniel are not like this. For instance, during her readings, Violet can immediately determine what a person wants to hear, yet when she and Daniel are stranded at a country inn, Violet explicitly reflects on how Daniel can schmooze better than she can (“If she’d arrived alone, without Daniel with his charm and wealth, they would have regarded her with deep suspicion.”) That doesn’t sound like a spiritualism superstar who can convince strangers she’s seen their dead relatives.
Similarly, Daniel is supposed to be both a driver and engineer, so brilliant that his car could contend for the world land speed record, but the engineer wasn’t a strong part of his character. It just popped up every seventy pages when necessary to advance the plot – he could be interested in Violet’s machines so he would chase her to France, or they could look at a car as background for a conversation. Since it’s the adrenaline thrills like ballooning and fast driving over which they really bond, why not just make him a driver, or a driver who’d like to be an engineer but who -gasp- actually has yet to prove himself at something? Then Violet would have something to offer him instead of being a damsel in distress whose life is entirely fixed by Daniel.
Daniel’s just too perfect. In addition to charming and wealthy, he’s handsome, brilliant at every subject, bilingual, excellent in bed, a great fighter, physically indomitable, blahdy blahdy blah. It felt both monotonous and offputting. A perfect hero who swoops in and transforms the heroine’s life can be a fantasy, I know, but the uneven balance of power in the relationship made me uncomfortable. Plus, it was just boring. An obstacle has arisen? Gee, I wonder how it will get fixed. Violet can’t even fix the things that ought to be her area of strength, like understanding and charming the innkeepers,, because no, it has to be Daniel!
The author also doesn’t resolve Violet’s relationship with her codependent mother, nor does she adequately address the belief that while Violet is a fraud, her mother is a true medium with true supernatural powers. While I don’t insist that the book come down firmly on one side or the other, at the very least the skeptical Daniel and the believer Violet could and should have had interesting conversations about the question.
Overall, this is a solid book, but its missed opportunities hold it back. I think it’s worth a read, but I wouldn’t read it again.