Kate Bateman’s To Catch an Earl is complicated by a simple fact; its plot hangs on the loosest of logic threads. One tug and it all comes apart. Oh well, at least the banter is decently witty until we get there.
Emmy Danvers – formerly Emmeline Louise d’Anvers – is the daughter of Europe’s most elusive jewel thief, and a natural mistress of disguise. Approaching Alexander Harland, Earl of Melton, at a ball, they share a memorable kiss before being separated by his war service. He vows to find her and she – knowing that if he knew the real her he would disapprove – vows he’ll never learn her true identity.
After his return from war, Alex becomes a Bow Street agent, and is now searching for the mysterious (and very oddly named) Nightjar, a jewel thief who’s recently struck several London based targets – wives of foreign dignitaries who have been liberated of their jewelry, and find only a single black feather as a calling card. Initially presuming the thief to be a man, he vows to bring the Nightjar to justice.
To the shock of no one familiar with romantic fiction, Emmy is Nightjar – a thief who has mastered disguise, yet wears a distinct, uniquely-blended-for-her perfume to every crime, but that’s beside the point. Her late father – a staunch supporter of the Bourbon monarchy – had dreamed of ‘obtaining’ the royal jewels of France so they could be held until the monarchy was restored, and it seems that with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo this might be a reachable, tangible goal. He was not able to achieve this before his death, and now his rival is blackmailing Emmy into stealing the jewels.
Thus does Alex chase Emmy on two fronts, initially believing her to be two different people, and not quite yet recognizing her as the woman who so memorably kissed him. But soon enough those realities will collide, forcing him to choose between his main squeeze and his morals.
The plot is what contributes to To Catch an Earl’s low grade. It’s tired, the dialogue and premise too modern – especially the sex scenes, in which the dialogue feels as though it’s been lifted from a contemporary romance.
Emmy might be more interesting, if her thievery had some unique motive instead of ‘blackmailed, must keep thieving.’ Before that, it was ‘likes money’. While it’s nice to have a heroine motivated by love of family and self, her eventual amorality doesn’t make her more interesting. At least she’s the smart kind of spunky.
Alex is funniest when he’s playing Emmy’s straight man; when he’s dashing around after her in frustration it’s much better than when he’s gravely trying to seduce her.
But together they’re the typical exasperated man/adventuresome woman pairing. Sometimes their banter works, is charming, and makes you invest in the couple – which saves the book from a D grade. But mostly they feel as if they were transported to the modern era and forced to play out the events of the book in corsets and tight breeches.
And they’re not terribly interesting. The book’s minor relationship between Emmy’s brother Luc, who is missing his foot thanks to Trafalgar, and the family housekeeper – who was a dresser at Covent Garden before becoming his nurse and cook – is vastly more interesting than anything going on between Emmy and Alex.
Aside from the whole perfume/distinct feather calling card, both of which make Emmy sound the sort of stupid she’s not supposed to be, the investigation is logic-complicated, with an ending that Must Take Place in Romance, but which ignores the fact that Emmy was thieving long before she was being blackmailed. Romance dictates that she must be a karma Houdini, but justice also abhors a vacuum.
To Catch an Earl is, for these reasons alone, not quite worth reading. But the banter is strong enough to make me wonder what Bateman’s other books might be like. Hopefully her next one won’t misfire as this one did.
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