Narrated by Stevie Zimmerman
Originally published in 1990, Viscount Vagabond is one of Loretta Chase’s earliest historical romances, and one which has only recently come to audio along with a handful of other titles such as Isabella, The English Witch and Knave’s Wager. It’s a lighthearted and often humorous romp that tells the story of a mismatched couple who are so convinced of their unsuitability for each other that they fail to see what’s right under their noses.
The eponymous hero is Max Demowery, Viscount Rand, who never expected to inherit wealth or title, and in fact, never wanted to, until the death of his elder brother changed things irrevocably. Max knows that at some point, he will have to do his duty, but he asks his father for six months’ grace – six months in which he can go off and do exactly as he pleases. At the end of that period, he will return to the fold ready to settle down, find the right young woman to marry, and become a model viscount. On his last night of freedom, he decides to go out with a bang, so to speak (!), gets roaring drunk, and then sets about getting laid.
Catherine Pelliston is fleeing an arranged marriage with one of her father’s unpleasant cronies when she’s offered help by a kindly, motherly woman who then drugs and abducts her with the intention of putting her to work in her brothel. Catherine’s first client is an incredibly handsome young man who is clearly very, very drunk – but he’s her only chance of escape, and she implores him to help her.
Even though he’s more than three sheets to the wind, Max is surprised when the young woman procured for him shows no interest in getting down to business. After a few minutes, however, Max begins, he thinks, to see the light – the girl likes playing games:
”Oh, all right. I’ll chase you if you like.” He started to get up, changed his mind, and slumped back against the pillow in a half-recumbent position. “Only it’s such a bother.”
But gradually, his drink-addled brain starts to see that the young woman is truly frightened and completely serious about having been brought to the brothel against her will, so he helps her to escape and takes her back to his seedy lodgings for the night.
Believing her saviour to be a slovenly man and habitual drunkard, Catherine is rather surprised when, the next morning, he takes her to meet his sister, the Countess of Andover. And she’s shocked even further when he turns out to be a viscount and heir to an earldom. It’s not long before Catherine is discovered to be a distant relation of the Andovers, and the countess decides to take her under her wing and bring her out. But before Catherine can be advised of this, she’s decided that her tattered reputation – not only was she discovered in a brothel, but she spent the night in a man’s lodgings without a chaperone – will only bring disrepute down upon her new friends, so she skips off to make her own way in the world, and finds work as a seamstress.
In the short time she spends with the Andovers, Catherine and Max are striking sparks off each other and trying to deny their attraction. He finds her to be rather preachy and sanctimonious and she believes him to be an inveterate sot, yet in spite of that, they’re reluctantly fascinated by each other. So what can Max do when Catherine bolts but track her down and bring her back?
Both characters are rather endearing. Max is an absolute sweetie, and even Catherine’s self-righteousness is written in such a way as to make the listener understand that she’s not so much a killjoy as a sheltered young woman who needs to gain a little experience and develop some maturity of outlook. Max delights in very gently pulling her leg and making fun of her more priggish pronouncements, and this is done in a way that doesn’t belittle her, but instead comes across as affectionate and concerned.
The pair continues to bicker their way through various silly and improbable situations, and it’s all deftly written and rather charming but when I got to the end, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I recently listened to – and enjoyed – another of Ms Chase’s earlier books, Knave’s Wager, which is full of her trademark dry wit and humour, with sparkling dialogue and terrific chemistry between the two leads. I had hoped for more of the same with Viscount Vagabond, but while it started well, it never quite lived up to its early promise. Max is a terrific hero – witty, charming and self-deprecating with a bit of depth to him, but Catherine is a little too close to being TSTL at times, and the chemistry that sparked between them at the outset seemed to fizzle out somewhere along the way.
In terms of the narration, it must have been a daunting task for Stevie Zimmerman to narrate these early Loretta Chase titles in the wake of Kate Reading’s stupendous performance of Lord of Scoundrels, which was the first of Ms Chase’s books to make it into audio format. I hadn’t listened to Ms Zimmerman before Knave’s Wager, but she did an excellent job in that audio, and her performance in Viscount Vagabond is equally good. Her voice is pleasant and well-modulated, sitting in what I’d call the higher end of the mezzo range (I’d put Rosalyn Landor and Kate Reading in the contralto category, if that helps for comparison) and she narrates clearly, at a good pace and with a good deal of expression. She differentiates well between all the characters, adopting a slightly lower pitch and harder edge for most of the male characters, and applying a variety of timbres in order to distinguish them from one another, such as the unpleasant gruffness she gives Lord Browdie (Catherine’s erstwhile suitor). Ms Zimmerman also makes good use of regional accents for characters such as the madam, the modiste and the young lad, Jemmy.
I have to once again express my concern over the sound quality, because the whole thing sounds somewhat tinny and treble-heavy. Both of the titles published under Loretta Chekani have had similar issues.
I wouldn’t say that the less-than-stellar sound quality spoiled the audiobook on this occasion, and in fact, Ms Zimmerman’s engaging performance increased my enjoyment overall. While I can’t count Viscount Vagabond among my favorite Loretta Chase titles, it certainly isn’t an unpleasant way to while away a few hours.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: B and Book Content: C
Unabridged. Length – 7 hours 24 minutes