The Midnight Man
by Charlotte Mede
(Brava, $14, R) ISBN 978-0-7582-2367-8
The Midnight Man includes some interesting historical information about the conflict that pitted Charles Darwin and Victorian-era churchmen. Little else recommends it. On every other score characters, plotting and romance it is a dismal failure.

Helena Hartford's merchant father all but sold his daughter to an aging aristocrat in desperate need of a fortune. The Duke has recently died, and Helena's fortune is once again hers. His nephew, the Bishop of Sissinghurst, would rather it were his. Since killing her would mean losing it again, with the help of Mosley, his Deacon, he hopes to have her confined to Bedlam.

Helena is aware of these plans. When she first meets Nicolas Ramsay at an opium den, she believes he is in their pay. Instead, he helps her escape from would-be captors only to make his own demands: she must accompany him on a fact-finding mission around the world that will prove Darwin right. She isn't interested, and she certainly doesn't trust him. So she does something pretty stupid and must be rescued again. This time, Ramsay kidnaps Helena and takes her on board his ship.

Only after Ramsay risks his life at sea to save Helena does she drop her guard. She shouldn't have. He has his own agenda and it really isn't very nice. As far as I am concerned, he never makes up for it.

Whiny and too-stupid-to-live Helena isn't any more likeable. Apparently having an artistic bent and flaunting conventions means walking open-eyed into pretty much every trap set for her. Even so, I did not think she would be so foolish as to forgive Ramsay after what he did. She does have the presence of mind to realize that his justification is pitiful. So why does she even listen to him?

There are one or two moments during Helena's and Ramsay's sea trip when I thought I saw a touching romance emerging, but it never materializes. And although Helena is desperate for an unconventionally sensual education (note her presence in an opium den at the opening of the story), the sex scenes remain much too tame and much too infrequent.

No secondary characters make up for this distasteful couple, and the plotting was too convoluted to make sense. I still don't understand the relationship between Mosley and Sissinghurst and why Mosley's obsession with Helena is given so much attention. The final showdown hints at something fairly nefarious that may (or not) be related to Darwin's followers, but it is never explored.

Frankly, I'm surprised the editors let this one get by. The Midnight Man does have potential. In fact, with tighter plotting, more pleasing characters and some expert revamping, I think it could have been quite good. The fourteen dollars the publishers are charging should imply a little more attention.

-- Mary Benn

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