by Barbara Metzger, historical (2008)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22438-5
In The Scandalous Life Of A True Lady, Simone Ryland decides that she has no other possible career options left after one too many failed attempts at employment. It's either she was too inept at the job or there were too many randy bastards trying to penetrate her virtue with their degenerate dipsticks. Deciding that if she's going to lose her maidenhead she may as well profit from it, Simone walks across the street to ask the abbess of the local hot brothel whether Simone can be trained to become a mistress of some rich bloke. Don't hate her, genteel readers, she has a brother to fed and school.
Recognizing at once Simone's educated state, Mrs Burton quickly summons her friend Harry Harmon. Our hero is a spy for the Crown and he needs a female accomplice to accompany him on a mission to sniff out a spy in a house party not meant for proper society. Because Simone realizes that there are many romance readers out there who will hate her for being a slut, she hesitates... until she learns that the party will host the Queen of Courtesans contest, where the prize money is £10,000. Don't worry, the contest is more genteel than you'd think. After all, Barbara Metzger, not your favorite Ellora's Cave author, wrote this story.
Harry is like pretty much every spy hero out there, so I don't have much to say about him. Simone could have been an interesting heroine if the author has portrayed her more consistently. Simone displays some non-typical traits of a heroine in a 19th century romance set in England - she isn't afraid to admit that she wants more money in her life to give herself and her brother a better life, you see - but Ms Metzger also cripples Simone with some clichéd traits that clash badly with the more pragmatic aspects of her personality. Like too many English heroines, Simone is stupefyingly blind to the obvious unless it is spelled out to her in big neon letters or - my preferred method - beaten senseless into her with a baseball bat named "Moron Killer". For example, after the way Harry had gone beyond the call of duty to treat her well, she will still insist like a bloody fool that Harry doesn't and can't possibly love her.
But what truly cripples this story is the spy element. Ms Metzger isn't just writing Spy Plots For Dummies here, she's writing Spy Plots For Infants, more like. Case in point: Harry's aliases. He plays an old man named Major Harrison. He also plays Major Harrison's secretary, named Mr Harris. Yes, Major Harrison and Mr Harris. Nobody will suspect a thing, surely! And then, Harry also plays a footman at Mr Harris and Major Harrison's club, using the alias Harry. Yes, Harry. When Harry is not playing Major Harrison, Mr Harris, or Harry the Footman, he's either Harold or Hal. When Ms Metzger says that Harry sometimes forget who he is supposed to be, I can only wonder whether this is because Harry only knows seven letters in the alphabet.
And then we have all these earnest spies using aliases made out of their real first names and their blessed mothers' maiden names. I'm not even going to start on the spy plot developments because the author doesn't even get the alias thing correct so you can imagine how worse things can only get from there. It's probably a good thing the non-spy characters like our heroine are too dense to see through these spies' disguises because I already feel embarrassed enough for these so-called spies.
If I may send a memo to Ms Metzger, it's to ditch the trappings of the traditional Regency formula and, oh yes, stop coming up with spy subplots that will work only in books targeted at kids under the age of 10.
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