Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Dangerous Madness by Michelle Diener

My Experience: A
Synopsis:  The Duke of Wittaker has been living a lie... He’s been spying on the dissolute, discontented noblemen of the ton, pretending to share their views. Now he’s ready to step out of the shadows and start living a real life...but when the prime minister of England is assassinated, he's asked to go back to being the rake-hell duke everyone still believes he is to find out more. 
Miss Phoebe Hillier has been living a lie, too... All her life she's played the game, hiding her fierce intelligence and love of life behind a docile and decorous mask. All it's gotten her is jilted by her betrothed, a man she thought a fool, but a harmless one. But when she discovers her former fiancĂ© was involved in the plot against the prime minister, and that he's been murdered, she realizes he wasn't so harmless after all. 
And now the killers have set their sights on her... The only man who can help her is the Duke of Wittaker--a man she knows she shouldn't trust. And she soon realizes he's hiding behind a mask as careful as her own. As the assassin steadfastly vows he acted alone, and as the clock ticks down to his trial, the pair scramble to uncover the real conspiracy. And as the pressure and the danger mounts, Phoebe and Wittaker shed their disguises, layer by layer, to discover something more precious than either imagined–something that could last forever. Unless the conspirators desperate to hide their tracks get to them first.

This was my first exposure to Ms Diener’s writing, it won’t be my last.  Her brisk and crisp style appealed to me from the first paragraphs of the sample pages.  The stark narrative was compelling and the details fascinating.  Her attention to details is obvious, her hand with dialog steady and her use of humor, both dark and light, delightful.  Characterizations were well done, you learned about Phoebe and James as they learned of each other and responded to their discoveries during the investigation, not in dreary info dumps.

Though there is a sizzle of attraction that is both startling and disconcerting to our hero and heroine, they allow themselves the respect and courtesy due themselves and each other.  I enjoyed the tight sentences and staccatoesque paragraphs.  When well done, this style of writing can be a character all on its own, when not; it can feel like a stab in the eye with a sharp stick.  Fortunately, Ms. Diener comprehends the difference and expresses it very well.  She also knows when to loosen up a bit and allow the prose a subtle change in style and tone, just enough to convey the emotion of the moment without slowing the story overmuch.  Truly, it has been some time since I enjoyed reading as much as I did this book.  I certainly paid for it the next day at work since I stayed up to the last page much, much too late!

The investigation and side plots are woven together in an even pattern, supporting the romance instead of overwhelming it or making it irrelevant.  Phoebe and James are both at a turning point in their lives, as is the world around them, you find yourself not only rooting for them but the world in general. For an Old Biddy like me, that is a rare occurrence indeed.

The secondary characters both real and fictional are appealing, appalling and adroitly sketched.  I loved the aunt, adored the butler, felt the frustration of the men, and found the interpretations of historical figures believable.  When convention is flouted, there are consequences.  When consequences are faced, there is dignity and realism though I suspect it would not have been quite so easy to carry on as implied, there was precious little time to do more than hint at the discomfort to come.

“You’re risking your reputation by being so gallant. Why?” She slipped her arm through his. 
He leaned in. “I don’t have much reputation to risk.” 
She couldn’t see his face, it was too close to hers, and she pulled back. “You were trying to reclaim it, though, before this. It will be harder for you to do that when this is over, because whatever ruin I’ve found myself in because of Sheldrake, I’m still considered an innocent. I’m more vulnerable than your usual victims, in their minds.” 
“My usual victims?” He tilted his head, so she was looking straight into his eyes, and she could see humor there. 
She smiled. “Well, I know you haven’t had any, but they don’t.” 
Something changed. 
He lowered his lids, but she glimpsed a darkness in him before he hid from her. 
“What is it?” 
He stiffened beneath her fingers. “Nothing, except, I’m no saint, and sometimes I was in character too well. I couldn’t build my reputation on nothing. Just remember that.” 
Still deep in conversation, her aunt and her friend began to drift toward the dining room and Wittaker steered her after them. 
Lady Halliford stood at the dining room door with her gaze focused on them. When she saw Phoebe had noticed her she looked straight through her and turned her back. 
The cut direct. 
“Won’t this be jolly?” Phoebe whispered in Wittaker’s ear, and when he looked at her with a straight face but laughter in his eyes, she had the satisfaction of seeing the darkness was gone.

I especially enjoyed the fact that though Phoebe is “fiercely intelligent” she isn’t obnoxious about it, to others or in her thoughts.  There are many fiercely intelligent men and women that live dignified lives, without need of a soap box to announce their gift, Phoebe is a wonderful and realistic representation of many.  James is no dunderhead; in fact, his intelligence is what prevented him from being the dissolute rake he pretended to be.  That he is troubled by the fact some of that acting was becoming a bit too real made him a vulnerable, but not beta, hero.  Their shared amusement over the masks they’ve worn creates a bond that advances their romance without the overdone, relentless arguing that is presented as “sparkling dialog” in so many romances.

There is a delicate passion between these two that develops and progresses without crossing into descriptive lines.  Kissing, snuggling, improper thoughts and offers, but the timeline fortuitously prevents anything further.  So you are utterly free to enjoy the scenes in the herb garden without fretting, they are a delight worth savoring.

Finally, for me, this would have been an Exceptional Read except for the hints that the men involved in the investigation have a back story I wanted to know.  Unfortunately, for me, there was not enough explanation of them for me to quite grasp what that was.  If they have their own books I was not aware of them when I began this one and, for me, a series book that cannot stand alone is not exceptional. That does *not* detract from the story, or my praise & enjoyment of the writing, it is just a rule of measurement for me.

Be advised:  I would suggest reading the author’s note at the end *after* you read the book since it speaks to conclusions suggested and might spoil you.  To stave off temptation, I offer this condensed version without spoilers:  “Perceval Spencer, the only English prime minister ever to be assassinated, was killed in May 1812 by John Bellingham. It was the JFK assassination of its day and it sent a ripple of shock through Britain. All the evidence relating to Bellingham’s part in the crime that I mention in this book, from where he stayed, who he bought the pistols from, the secret pocket he had sewn into his coat, the events that transpired through the shooting itself, as well as for Bellingham’s stated reason for the crime are true.  In most cases, I’ve used the names of the real people involved, like the Attorney-General, Sir Vicary Gibbs, Mr. Harmer, Bellingham’s defense council, Vickery the Bow Street Runner and a number of others.  There have been conspiracy theories around for a long time over why Bellingham killed Perceval, and who was helping him.  The facts of the matter will probably never come to light, but it was extremely interesting delving into this incident and this time in British history.”

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