Midnight Angel by Julie Beard
(Berkeley, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-19439-6
Turgid pacing, feeble crime solving, and scattered focus – it’s no mystery why this book didn’t work for me.

In 1880 London, the streets are agog with stories of the Midnight Angel who rescues fallen women. When Sophie Parnham (the illegitimate daughter of an actress) is kidnapped, the Midnight Angel must intervene. Not because Sophie is a prostitute, but because it was recently discovered that Sophie’s father is the earl of Beaumont. The Midnight Angel is really Lydia, Beaumont’s countess, disguised as a man.

After a life as an unrepentant rake, Lydia’s husband is dying of syphilis and wants to acknowledge Sophie and leave her a fortune. To repay Beaumont for saving her from a life of disgrace, Lydia is determined to honor his final request.

Lydia cannot find Sophie on her own, so, at her husband’s insistence, they call in Hugh Montgomery, a viscount known as “Lord Clue” for his celebrated crime solving abilities. Unfortunately, the famous detective is also the man responsible for ruining Lydia. She hates him for abandoning her, but she still loves and wants him past all reason. Young Sophie’s trouble transcends these petty personal differences, however, so Lydia will do whatever it takes to save her.

That’s really about all you need to know. There’s a complex and highly dramatic backstory, but most of it’s filler, trying to distract us from the fact that, for most of the book, nothing much happens.

The author sets up a potentially intriguing premise and mystery, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. We’re told that Lord Clue’s brilliant deductive reasoning and acute powers of observation make him the go-to guy when Scotland Yard can’t get the job done. What we’re shown is Lord Clueless sitting around waiting for ‘clues’ to fall into his lap and blaming his ineptitude on his emotional involvement with Lydia. Hugh’s opium addiction has little bearing on the story and exists solely to demonstrate that the bad guy is evil, evil, evil. I guess kidnapping and debauching innocents wasn’t evidence enough.

The author frequently wanders off on tangents, leaving Sophie’s little problem (and the romance) floating in limbo. There's a pointless foray into Victorian gynecological practices. There’s a contrived bordello episode that sounds like it was researched by reading stilted Victorian erotica.

Even more bizarre, while the author purports to be horrified by the life of London streetwalkers, Lydia’s training in an exclusive bawdy house is completely romanticized. Despite her claims to hate that part of her life, Lydia experienced ecstatic sexual gratification at the hands of a talented customer, was highly entertained by watching the other ‘girls’ work, and seemed to think that falling in love with a future protector would be her biggest problem as a courtesan. Are we to understand that prostitution becomes less vile and demeaning when more money changes hands?

There are pages and pages quoted from Lydia’s diaries, in which she transcribed lengthy conversations word for word. Thinly disguised flashbacks, this diary diarrhea drags the story to a halt whenever it’s introduced. In spite of the fact that a child’s life is supposedly at stake, everything moves in such slow motion it feels like everyone is taking opium.

The Midnight Angel and Lydia’s good works with ‘wayward women’ go away about halfway through the book when Lydia decides she doesn’t have time for that anymore; her only priority is finding Sophie. I’m just warning you, because this abandonment of the initial premise may come as an unpleasant surprise to some readers, especially if they read the book’s title.

The writing includes some shades of extravagant purple (“She had loved him more than was humanly possible. She had reinvented the world with their love, dismissing all the known laws of the universe.”), and dialogue with all the natural spontaneity of a badly dubbed Japanese movie (Hugh: “The sacrifice will take place as planned on Beltaine.” Lydia: “Yes, that is surely what it means.”).

It was one of the most tedious books I’ve read in quite some time. Is that enough of a clue for you?

-- Judi McKee

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