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Midnight Waltz by Barbara Hazard
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19813-1
***
I have always believed that the first person works well in a gothic tale but is less satisfactory in a romance, unless the author is incredibly talented. Barbara Hazard's new Regency romance would seem to prove my theory. Her interesting foray into a first person narrative works better with the gothic elements of her tale the poison pen letters received by the heroine than it does with the romance.

Constance Ames is a young lady from Yorkshire who was raised by her kindly uncle after her parents' deaths. When an aunt she hardly knows invites her to spend the season in London, her uncle encourages her to take advantage of Viscountess Moreston's generosity. A few weeks at Moreston House make Constance wonder about her decision.

Her widowed aunt is a pale and nervous woman, dependent on her companion Miss Mason and a seeming cipher in her own home. Cameron, the viscount, is mostly from home, pursuing his passion for gambling and sport in all its forms. His sister, Louisa, is a high strung, impetuous young woman whose behavior always borders on the scandalous. Neither has any time for their stepmother.

Despite the seeming hindrance that her "family" might be thought to present, Constance quickly finds her feet in society. Then, the nasty letters start arriving, purporting to uncover the scandalous doings of her parents and seeming to threaten revelation of the same to the ton. Constance feels that she has no one in whom she can confide about these calumnies.

One afternoon at a gathering, Constance is singled out by "Rogue" Carlyle, one of the most influential and outrageous of London's bachelor's. She finds his conversation most amusing and gives as good as she gets in the exchange. She promises Carlyle a waltz at an upcoming ball.

But before the ball, Constance has a serious accident. In a milling crowd outside a theater, she is pushed in the way of an upcoming carriage. Was it an accident or does her unknown enemy have so much animosity towards the young woman that she is in danger?

Since an injured Constance cannot go to the ball and dance with Carlyle, he arrives at her bed chamber, with a midnight supper, champagne, musicians and a respectable chaperon for his midnight waltz. Is this just another of Rogue Carlyle's outrageous starts, or does it mean something more? And is there a possibility that Carlyle, who is well on the way to winning Constance's heart, might be responsible for the letters?

As you can see from all the questions in the preceding paragraphs, Midnight Waltz has some of the elements of a gothic mystery. And uncovering the culprit is cleverly done. Certainly the supporting cast bears a marked resemblance to the kind of characters who peopled gothic romances: mysterious, unbalanced, and subtly threatening.

But while the book works pretty well as a mystery, it doesn't work quite as well as a romance. The hero and heroine spend relatively little time together so we don't see the relationship develop and grow. We are never quite clear why a confirmed bachelor like Rogue Carlyle finds Miss Ames so delightful.

I admire Hazard's decision to try something a little different in Midnight Waltz, but if anything, this book convinces me of the validity of my original premise. It's very hard to write a romance in the first person.

--Jean Mason


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