Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Before the Scandal," by Suzanne Enoch

The Chick: Alyse Donnelly. After a failed elopement turned her into a social pariah, she's had to live on the grudging charity of her cousin and aunt, living as a lowly companion and unpaid servant.
The Rub: When her friend Phin Bromley returns after a 10-year absence, convinced that someone's intentionally vandalizing his brother's land, his investigations turn up hinky things about her family - can she risk the roof over her head to help him?
Dream Casting: Robin Hood's Lucy Griffiths.

The Dude:
Colonel Phineas Bromley. For ten years, he's avoided returning to his family after a drunken horse race ended up crippling his brother. When a heartfelt letter from his sister demands his return, he discovers his family's estate is in worse shape than he thought.
The Rub: As much as he wants to help, his brother clearly doesn't welcome his assistance and most of society's unconvinced he's changed from the rakehell he used to be - including his childhood sweetheart Alyse.
Dream Casting: Elliot Cowan.

The Plot:
Phin: Hey kids, I'm home - is my brother dying?

Beth, Phin's sister: I lied.

Phin: Why'd you write me, then?

Beth: Can't say.

Phin: I want to help.

William, Phin's Brother: Sure.

Phin: No, really.

Alyse: Right.

Phin: So I just rode all the way back here for nothing, then?

Alyse: Well, we could have sex.

Phin: Yay! You're awesome.

Alyse: Uh-huh.

Phin: I think Lord Donnelly's trying to steal our estate.

William: Okay.

Phin: I love you.

Alyse: Of course you do.

Phin: ...

Bad Guys: *do bad things*

Alyse, William, Beth: PHIN, HELP!

Phin: Right.

Alyse, William, Beth: No, REALLY.

Phin: *defeats Bad Guys* Might as well get married.

Alyse: Okay.

Phin: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Reformed Rake

1 Fallen Woman

1 Crippled Brother

2 Sexy BFFs

1 Yellow Horse

3 Evil Dudes

1 Incompetent Scottish Valet

1 Guilt Trip

The Word:
I wanted so much to like this novel, especially after reading After the Kiss, in which a spoiled but sweet Society miss falls for a righteous art thief. I rather enjoyed Kiss because our heroine was an unabashed girly-girl who liked dresses and balls and thought blackmailing a masked intruder into hanging on her beck and call would be an awesome idea to spend the time.

And Before the Scandal starts out strongly enough - our hero, Phineas Bromley (a soldier who served with Sullivan from Kiss and Bram from Always a Scoundrel, the next book) returns to the family estate of Quence when his sister Beth writes to tell him that his older brother's on his deathbed. He returns to find his brother William very much alive, albeit not kicking thanks to an accident ten years ago that Phin instigated back when he was in his Drink-Gamble-Fuck phase.

Clearly, Beth lied to him in order to ensure his return, but she refuses to tell him why. However, Phin, being an observant fellow, comes to his own conclusions: over the last year, an unusually high number of accidents have befallen Quence (poisoned horse feed, fires, floods), and it's clear to Phin that these misfortunes might not be accidental at all. However, most of the people in town - hell, in his own family - are disinclined to believe he's changed his irresponsible ways, so he decides to masquerade as a French highwayman in order to suss out the answers without bringing attention to his siblings. Yeah, it's a pretty flimsy excuse to become a highwayman, but noble thievery seems to be the theme of Enoch's The Notorious Gentlemen trilogy so I tried to suspend my disbelief.

Phin's plans are threatened somewhat by the distraction of Alyse, his childhood sweetheart. Back in the day, she was the cream of the social crop, so Phin's surprised to discover she's still unmarried. The years haven't been kind to Alyse - five years ago she was seduced and then cast aside by a fortune hunter, dropping her down to the bottom of the social totem pole. She's since been living on the suffrage of her odious cousin and aunt. She's been skimming money off for herself whenever they send her on errands, hoping to eventually secure some kind of independence, but she's not in the clear yet and too much feistiness on her part could send her out onto the street.

Phin and Alyse don't discover their romance so much as re-kindle it after a break of ten years. Phin already likes and respects her, and Alyse still has fluttery feelings for him. However, he feels he owes his family and their troubles the bulk of his attention and still feels undeserving of happiness. She, meanwhile, has been ruined before and is determined to look out for her own interests.

I should first point out that the mystery/suspense aspect of the book - such as who's behind the vandalism and why they're so determined to drive the Bromleys off their land by any means necessary - is very interesting. It's well-paced, revealing new information at crucial points, and the villains' motivation is developed and surprisingly mature (their plans are neither as simple as a greedy land-grab nor as cartoonish as world domination). Phin's investigations make sense but at the same time he's not perfect, so the reader has time to discover things before he does. My problems with this novel have nothing to do with the mystery/suspense aspect, except for one thing which I'll mention later.

My main problem with this novel is that the mystery, and not the romance or the characters, was what kept me reading. The romance itself is rather tepid, and in fact seems to play second fiddle to the mystery. Alyse, for her part, doesn't contribute all that much to the story - she comes off more like a spunky love interest than a protagonist. After all, her own problems have little to do with the plot - she's a Cinderella who decides to assist Phin in his mystery-solving by playing spy. That's the key word here - she assists in the plot, without really being a subject of the plot.

As such, her romance with Phin seemed abbreviated - I personally thought they jumped into bed together way too early, without proper motivation, and in a ridiculously inappropriate situation. Phin arrives at her house bleeding to death from a bullet wound and Alyse is by turns horrified, then outraged that he lied to her, and then horny for him. Uh, yeah, because nothing says "do me" like being covered in blood. Similarly, Phin has the Alpha Male Pain Tolerance - no measly flesh wound can tame his mighty Alpha Boner.

That's not to say that Alyse has no development - she does start out pretty self-absorbed at the start (mainly huffing and puffing over how Phin didn't return after ten years for her, but for the frivolous reason of protecting his family's livelihood), but it's somewhat understandable since she's spent the last five years being the only one to look out for herself. As the story progresses, and it becomes more and more obvious that her cousin is behind the vandalism, she has to decide whether helping Phin's family is worth rocking the boat and possibly jeopardizing her shelter.

Phin, meanwhile, is refreshing in his own way as a martyr hero. More often then not, heroines tend to make themselves the emotional punching bag because the Hero! He is Just So Angry and Passionate In His Ways! If Only He Had an Outlet He Could Also Have Sex With! Ten years ago, Phin was a reckless bad boy, but spent a decade making himself a better person after a horse race with William left his older brother crippled. After he returns, many people (his brother included) continue to treat him like dogshit and expect very little of him, and Phin merely turns around and bends over to make his ass all the more easier to kick with a frozen steel-toed boot.

To the author's credit, Phin is responsible for William's accident - it wasn't a "I sent him a letter and he got a papercut and the infection cost him his hand, woe is me I am a blot on mankind" situation. It just gets a little repetitive - Phin refuses to argue or even disagree with his brother or demand even the slimmest benefit of the doubt. "My brother is dead from the waist down" puts a damper on pretty much any discussion. He retains enough self-respect to continue to hunt for clues despite his brother's disapproval, but refuses to see that ten years cleaning up his act should earn him a little leeway.

However, while the mystery aspect was the better part of this novel than the romance, at the end, it also fails by having a disappointing, lazy ending that reeks of cop-out. Spoilers and an exacting rant ahoy - the first half of this mystery was so intelligently set up that I expected Phin and his allies would find a clever way to have Richard (Lord Donnelly) and his cronies expose themselves.

Instead, Phin breaks into Richard's house, ties them all up and forces a confession from Richard by gunpoint - after shooting him in the leg first. First of all, Richard confesses under duress - he even gets blood on the freakin' confession! Of course, the solicitor Phin brings along with him says nothing about how this is totally illegal and invalid or that what Phin is doing is wrong - even though Phin and his friends have produced no evidence that proves Richard isn't an innocent person with a strong motivation to keep himself bullet-free. Even an innocent person, when shot in the leg, could be persuaded to sign a confession. Oh, and a draft that promises Phin's girlfriend ten thousand pounds.

This was such a terrible ending because it a) didn't do justice to the clever writing of the mystery's first half, b) it was unnecessary, and c) it demeans the hero. Phin acts like many a fictional sleuth - tracking the criminals by the clues they leave behind and by their behaviour - and yet, he doesn't solve the mystery by outing the villains using evidence or tricking them into revealing themselves - often the thrilling climax of a mystery. He "solves" the crime with the simple, ham-handed fact that, at this particular moment, he holds a gun and they do not. See my paragraph above for why I think that's a crock-of-shit cop-out ending for what was initially a cunning plotline.

As for B), Phin had evidence - several living witnesses (including a viscount, the sister of a viscount, and the son of a duke) who the criminals tried to murder by setting their house on fire. Why didn't he go to a magistrate or a higher authority?

And C), the ultimate reason why I didn't buy the ending and thought it was a cheap n' easy way out - was that the hero, Phin, had to do something illegal and unethical in order to "solve" the problem. He forces a man to sign a confession at gunpoint, and robs him of ten thousand pounds (also at gunpoint!). To me, it felt like Suzanne Enoch had spent 350 pages or so crafting this beautiful meal, roasting the turkey, mashing the potatoes, mixing the stuffing - and then at the last minute goes and picks up McDonalds. Yeah, it solves the problem (dinner), but how lame is it to have McDonalds after a lead-up like that?

No, the book isn't terribly written, but as I've said - this romance/mystery is lukewarm in the romance department and ultimately unsatisfying in the mystery part. Think before you get Before the Scandal.


  1. The two Enoch books I've read almost seemed to be trying too hard. I liked Sins of a Duke but there were some major flaws and Twice the Temptation was also a miss. Both well written but too convoluted or something, hmm.

  2. This was definitely not one of Enoch's better books. I reviewed it when it came out and I think I gave it a C.

    Personally, The Rake and England's Perfect Hero are 2 of her better novels.

    None of her recent historical efforts have touched them.