Berkley Sensation, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19525-2
Historical Romance, 2004
Oh dear, the Free Fellows League are back again. I don’t really mind the whole English League of Justice Superspy Forever nonsense as big boys need some outlet for their tomfoolery sometimes, but I draw the line when the author inserts a non-marriage clause in the Free Fellows League just because she can. Thankfully, the hero in Merely the Groom is not as birdbrained as some of the other members of the Free Fellows League, but it’s still a tough sell for me because this book suffers from a League overkill.
I mean, seriously, the three guys talk about nothing but the Free Fellows League all the time. It’s as bad as some cheerleaders in high school that cannot let go of their sororities once the drunken post-prom shag is over and it’s time to hit the rat race. Pair the hero with a heroine who, while isn’t too stupid, is rather girlish and this book is like the Spy and the Dimbulb Who Loves Him.
Colin McElreath is one of the Super Earls, Wonder Dukes, Uber Viscounts, and Mega Marquess in England that overrun the Secret Service. He and his two friends have formed the League since their boarding school days, and now they are spies for the Crown. Colin McElreath, Viscount Grantham, whose identity can be traced back to him should he fall under the radar of the Evil French People, holds the appropriately vague codename of Colin Fox. Yup, nobody will even think of tracing Colin Fox to Colin McElreath, so why waste his much-needed brain cells in thinking of a suitably secret agent-like code name?
One day, while doing his Colin Fox stint and having to enter an inn by climbing into a room while he is injured (because you see, running back to the room next to yours in the inn where you are staying when people are out to get you is a very excellent idea – they will never find you there!), he finds Gillian who is ruined after eloping with a cad who pretends to be Colin Fox. Yes, she is really ruined, if you know what I mean. He holds her tight as they sleep, and leaves her some money for her fare home before he disappears in the morning.
Ah, but they meet again when Colin learns that this cad has been using the name Colin Fox to ruin young ladies around town and bringing people’s attention towards Colin Fox, which isn’t a good idea if Colin wants to keep being a League member. If you ask me, he asked for this the day he decided to choose a code name that is so similar to his real name, but hey, what can I say, I didn’t write this book. Colin tries to appeal to Baron Davies to stop hiring Bow Street Runners to flush out Colin Fox. Boy, he must be a really sucky agent if he can’t change his code name or if Bow Street Runners can actually trace him to his real identity. The Baron insists that Colin marries Gillian (his daughter) and everything will be alright again.
And so they go. Colin has the obligatory lousy parents as well as the League charter as excuses to moan about having to marry, while Gillian moans and sighs about her letting herself be ruined. The relationship dynamics are very predictable, but the relationship is pushed to the background in the later half of the book for more League nonsense. And if you can’t tell by the synopsis of the story so far, Ms Lee has a hard time plotting a decent espionage subplot out of a thimble. Everything about the subplot, from Colin’s flop spy antics to the fake Colin Fox’s modus operandi and reasonings, doesn’t seem to have that much thought put into it.
Predictable romance is one thing, but this is also a story that attempts to pass off far-fetched, often ridiculous, and badly-planned elements as external subplots. The author doesn’t seem to be aware of how dumb both her secret agents and their enemies are being, with the plot coming off as a bad Danger Mouse cartoon at times. A book that has me wondering just what the author must be thinking to come up with this or that element in her plot (and passing them off as smart or sophisticated to boot!) can’t be that good, surely?