The Mermaid

The Perfect Mistress

The Soft Touch

The Unlikely Angel

Sweet Talking Man by Betina Krahn
(Bantam, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-57619-4
Sweet Talking Man suffers from a split personality -- wavering between the sincere and convincing to the downright silly. It features two intelligent, ambitious, principled, and likable characters who seem to undergo periods of brain meltdown. As long as the story remained centered on the conflict created by the hero’s political aspirations and the heroine’s commitment to business and women’s rights, I found it spirited and satisfying. On the other hand, whenever it deteriorated into farce (and that’s often), I quickly lost interest. It’s as though the author tried to write two books in one -- a broad comedy with stock comic characters and a serious romance between characters divided by their political beliefs.

Sixteen-year-old Priscilla Lucciano and eighteen-year-old Jeffrey Granton are in lov-v-ve. Priscilla’s aunt, Beatrice Von Furstenburg, who at the advanced age of thirty is (in her niece’s opinion ) “old and decrepit,” is determined to keep them apart. Priscilla concocts a scheme where Beatrice will be confronted by two apparently ruthless criminals but Jeffrey will arrive in the nick of time to save her and as a result will appreciate him for the wonderful hero he truly is.

Jeffrey agrees to this plan and approaches his cousin Connor Sullivan Barrow for assistance in finding individuals to play the ruthless criminals. Connor, a lawyer, is the black sheep of the Barrow family, having walked away from the family banking business, and is now a candidate for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall, the late nineteenth century New York City Democratic political machine. Connor believes he is assisting Jeffrey in an elopement and puts him in touch with Dipper Muldoon and Shorty O’Shea, two bumbling characters who would find simultaneously walking and chewing gum challenging.

The intended hold-up is a fiasco when the police arrive but Jeffrey, who is detained by his mother to drink sherry with her guests, doesn’t. Dipper and Shorty abduct Beatrice and dump her in the only place where a woman’s screams won’t draw attention -- the Oriental Palace, New York’s premier house of pleasure.

Jeffrey is forced to confess the truth to his cousin in order to obtain his assistance in locating Priscilla’s aunt. Connor is horrified to learn her identity -- Beatrice Von Furstenburg, the wealthy and powerful widow who runs her late husband’s extensive business and financial interests. When he finds her at the Oriental Palace, he expects to be facing a frightened woman, desperate to be rescued. But Beatrice is made of sterner stuff and threatens legal reprisals. She is not so stern, however, that she is not susceptible to Connor’s line of blarney. He realizes that she is not meekly going to agree to his terms so Connor leaves her at the Oriental Palace where she becomes acquainted with the resident girls and their concerns and is very much in the way of their conducting business in the usual manner.

After she is released, Beatrice launches an investigation into her abduction which quickly turns up Dipper and Shorty and the whole tale. In order to prevent her revealing his involvement in the scheme to the press, Connor agrees to support the cause of women’s suffrage, a notion which he firmly condemns and has no intention of truly assisting

But Beatrice is not about to allow Connor to renege on his promise, and they’ll soon find themselves thrown together again and again.

What works well in this book is the gradual development of the romance between Connor and Beatrice. There’s one scene, depicted in the step-back cover illustration, where Connor rubs her feet that’s more sensual and romantic than many a get-down-and-dirty bed scene. There are a lot of characters’ opinions that experience major changes over the course of this story, and Connor’s and Beatrice’s slow discovery of how they’re right for each other is among the most credible.

What doesn’t work as well is the implication that Beatrice, who was forced to marry a much older man at a young age after her older sister eloped, is so repressed and sex-starved that she loses all her sense whenever Connor murmurs sweet nothings in her ear even though initially she has every reason to believe that he is in cahoots with unsavory elements. Beatrice is portrayed as an intelligent woman; she is not incapable of appreciating that appearances may be deceiving. Okay, Connor’s a hunk, but Ted Bundy was pretty good-looking, too.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it had a more even tone throughout and had done without the aspect that is highlighted in the titl -- that is, whenever the hero feeds the heroine a line of blarney, she melts so fast she might as well have “ I’m easy” tattooed on her forehead. As I result, I can only recommend half this book, and that’s not enough to raise it above acceptable status.

--Lesley Dunlap

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