by Anna Randol, historical (2012)
Avon Impulse, $3.99, ISBN 978-0-06-212173-8
Don't be fooled by the cover art or the title of this short story. A Most Naked Solution is neither an erotic romance nor a romantic comedy. It's a story of a widow who, after enduring abuse from her late husband in stoic silence and continuing to play the martyr even after his death, finds love by just being a beautiful target of what seems like a murder plot.
Lady Sophia Harding believes that her father murdered her husband, the late Viscount Harding. The official verdict is that the man was accidentally shot by a poacher, but she doesn't believe that. Not that she asked her father about it, she just knows. Oh, and if you wonder where you've heard of her before, it is because you have read A Secret In Her Kiss: she's the sister of the hero in that book. Lord Camden Grey, the local Justice of the Peace, doesn't believe that the man's death is accidental either.
In fact, he offered a reward for information concerning the man's death shortly before this story begins, and when the story opens, he believes that he may have found a clue suggesting that Sophia hired some people to murder her husband. He decides to investigate the matter more thoroughly, and he soon suspects that the many people he encounters are covering up for Sophia. Why? You can guess that he will eventually fall for his prime suspect, I'm sure.
Sophia talks a lot about wanting to stop being the timid woman who let herself become the victim, but she doesn't do much to change the situation in this story. Her refusal to say anything and just endure can really get on my nerves. I understand why she can be this way, but her passive nature drags other people into her mess, and unlike her, those people are local ordinary people who do not have a title or money to protect them from Camden, if Camden had been a far less unreasonable person. It's hard not to want to shake Sophia a bit when she shows no awareness of how everyone has to bend over backwards to protect her.
It is also rather bizarre to see how Ms Randol's central theme in this story is Sophia learning that she is "worth protecting for" and "worth waiting for". Isn't that what practically everyone in Weltford is doing, protecting her reputation after the death of her husband? She thought her father killed her husband - doesn't that mean that he believes that she is worth protecting for? This is no different from a romance heroine realizing that she is beautiful after chapters of everyone else trying to convince her of her beauty. Someone give this twit a medal for realizing the obvious.
Camden is a bewildering hero. He is into numbers, I'm told at the beginning, and he soon falls into that stereotypical rut where academically-inclined heroes are often portrayed as anal types who view the world in black and white. Only, his interest in the death of Sophia's husband seems like a tacked-on device to get the story rolling. He doesn't show any urgency to solve the mystery, and it's hard to figure out why he cares. If he really cares about justice, for example, then it's a tough one to swallow when he buys Sophia's innocence so quickly when he was previously skeptical about everything. Poor Camden also doesn't seem too bright. He's shocked, for instance, when he realizes that Sophia may have good reasons to murder her husband. He's the Justice of the Peace. How can he be this naïve about things like this?
Still, I have to admit that A Most Naked Solution is a very readable story. One thing that impresses me here is how, in just 152 pages, Ms Randol manages to evoke some emotional response from me. As much as I think Sophia is being unnecessarily dramatic in her determination to be a martyr, often at the expense of the people around her, I do feel a degree of empathy for her. And Camden, at the end of the day, is a pretty decent hero who is good for her. I'm actually glad to see them end up together. In a longer story, their romance might be one that can stick to the mind because the basic ingredients - pathos, chemistry, poignancy - are there. It's rather unfortunate, therefore, that A Most Naked Solution suffers from classic short story problems that hold it back far too often for its own good.
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