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The Fortune Hunter by Meagan McKinney
(Kensington, $23.00, PG-13) ISBN 1-57566-262-0
If, perchance, you think historical romance is getting awfully cute and bubbly these days, then Meagan McKinney is your antidote. Less sweetness and light than a strong shot of cough medicine, McKinney's books focus on the darker, more raw side of attraction and romance. Her new work, The Fortune Hunter, is no exception.

The Fortune Hunter takes place in New York City of 1881, a time when the spiritualist craze was at its height. Parlor mediums, the nineteenth-century equivalent of New Age channelers, would conduct seances to speak with the spirits. And in The Fortune Hunter, the most successful medium of them all is the beautiful Countess Lovaenya, who contacts the dead from her upscale townhouse at Washington Square.

In reality, the Countess is an ingenious fraud, who in another life was plain Lavinia Murphy, an orphan from St. Louis. In her trade as a spiritualist, she employs tricks and deceits learned from carnies and gypsies. It has allowed her to escape from a future in prostitution, and allowed her to rise in the world, so that her clients are among the most fashionable and wealthy in the city.

When one of her most devoted clients dies and leaves his estate to Lavinia, she is made rich beyond her wildest dreams. But there are terrible complications, since the will effectively disinherits a crippled daughter, as well as ignores an illegitimate son, Edward Stuyvesant-French. Edward, furious at his father's selfish and foolish act, makes it his mission in life to expose Lavinia as a conniving con artist, and restore his sister's birthright.

Edward begins to dog Lavinia's footsteps, never allowing her a moment's peace, challenging her to perform a seance for him. Lavinia quite rightly demurs, for her success depends upon her audience's gullibility. Eventually, Edward does catch Lavinia in one of her tricks, and blackmails her into signing over his father's fortune. He also offers her a sizable pay-off to stay away from his sister, Daisy, who in the interim has become very fond of Lavinia. This Edward will not tolerate, for to him, Lavinia is a lying whore.

But Daisy's will prevails. In her sweet, inoffensive way, she manages things so that everyone concerned are soon on a ship bound for England and the Grande Tour. When Edward discovers that he has not escaped Lavinia's grasping tentacles, he is outraged. Lavinia, who is voyaging to Europe to find a respectable husband for her sister Hazel, wants nothing more than for Edward to leave her alone. But despite all the bitterness between them, they are also bound together by what Edward dismissively terms "carnal fascination." Lots of shipboard romancing ensues.

With The Fortune Hunter, McKinney sets up enough story and conflict to write a novel perhaps twice as long. Unfortunately, while the book has a strong beginning, the story definitely peters out the moment the characters get on the ship. I found it strange that though McKinney obviously worked hard researching the spiritualist phenomenon, she doesn't apply it well. After Lavinia sets off for Europe, she drops her spiritualist persona, and seeking respectability, wants never to "speak to the dead" again. Whatever pluck Lavinia once had, that allowed her to rise from dire poverty, seems to desert her. Watching her suffer agonies from love of Edward become very tiresome. Can everyone say CO-DEPENDENT?

Why Lavinia is subject to such love, or even "carnal fascination" with Edward, is an utter mystery. Throughout the book, his manner is unfailingly abusive toward her. Many a romantic hero is brooding and cynical; but Edward is one of the most evil-tempered heroes I've seen in romantic fiction. Where else can you find a hero, who in the first sex scene, calls the heroine "a sweet piece of meat"? He may have good reason to think the worst of Lavinia, but his constant verbal attacks on her are troubling, especially in light of Lavinia's growing, masochistic desire for him.

Once or twice, Lavinia and Edward drop their hostilities to share a good belly laugh, but this hardly compensates for his nastiness, which continues nearly to the last page. When Edward finally does declare his love for Lavinia, it struck me as unbelievable. Whatever process he goes through, to bounce from hate to love, is obscure. And in a good romance novel, I want to see not only two characters falling in love, but how and why they fall in love.

There were other problems with the shipboard section of The Fortune Hunter. While McKinney often creates very effective settings, I had no sense that these characters were actually at sea. Daisy, who is confined to a wheelchair, never seems to have any problem getting around, despite the pitch and swell of the sea. Nobody aboard seems to suffer from seasickness, either. While Lavinia and Edward's shipboard romance flounders, the romances of the minor characters come across as trite and superficial. For example, Hazel falls for an affianced duke, but the only real obstacle presented is the duke's getting disentangled from his steel heiress fiancée and not that Hazel is an illegitimate con-artist! Add to this the question that Lavinia may be a real psychic after all, and The Fortune Hunter takes a very silly spin.

Personally, I love romances with darker themes and somewhat dysfunctional characters. Therefore, I have a couple of Meagan McKinney's books occupying my bookshelf. But I cannot recommend The Fortune Hunter, because to me it hardly qualifies as a romance, since every sex scene contains an abusive element; and because ultimately, love seems to humiliate the hero and heroine, rather than ennoble them.

--Meredith Moore

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