The Dark Stranger
by Isabelle Patrick
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6155-2
I once asked a noted Regency author why so many of the heroines in her and others' books were marginalized women governesses, poor relations, vicars' daughters, impoverished gentlewomen. She responded that if the heroine is a happy, well-adjusted, lovely, graceful member of the best family, it is awfully hard to get the reader to root for them. After reading Isabelle Patrick's The Dark Stranger, I see what she means.

Nicola Wynstan is the beauteous daughter of a distinguished general of considerable wealth. She lives in a lovely home in Sussex with her handsome brother, her devoted mother and her irascible but doting father. She has had two seasons in London where she attracted hordes of suitors, none of whom she has chosen to marry. The only cloud on her horizon is her mother's not surprising determination to get her married and her father's disinterest in her friend Adrian Pettifer's intriguing scheme to build a tunnel under the English channel. This is not the stuff of which compelling heroines are made.

The only excitement in her community is the arrival of the new Marquis of Cranborne, Jocelyn Sturbridge. Jocelyn unexpectedly inherited his uncle's dignities and estate. An aura of scandal surrounds the new marquis because as a young man, he eloped with the much older wife of a nobleman. Debarred from returning to England after his lover abandoned him for a richer prospect, he proceeded to make his way to the east where he made his fortune. The respectable folk in the neighborhood are not quite sure how to treat the newcomer. Mrs. Wynstan is sure that any connection there would be improper.

Nicola comes across the wicked marquis one afternoon as she is picking flowers in his woods. She is much put off by his abrupt manner and the fact that, unlike most men of her acquaintance, he is not immediately bowled over by her beauty. In fact his is downright rude. Another encounter seals her low opinion of the marquis as he takes her to task for her behavior. And when he steals a kiss at a local ball, well really!

The primary excitement is the appearance on the scene of a band of highwaymen who are preying on unwary travelers. Indeed, the Wynstan's coach is held up and the family is rescued by none other than the marquis. For no other reason than her dislike of the man, Nicola concludes that he is probably leading the gang of thieves for sport and excitement.

There is indeed villainy afoot and Nicola becomes a target. But can we doubt who will ride to her rescue?

I am not sure if this is Patrick's first novel or not, but suspect that it might be. It has many of the hallmarks of a first effort. Certainly the author has done her homework. There is much in the book about Regency fashions (indeed, the continual descriptions of what Nicola is wearing on every imaginable occasion become a little tedious), Patrick also does not make any noticeable missteps regarding Regency social mores or behavior.

However, the writing is not especially polished. There is quite a bit of head-hopping (there must be if I noticed it) and the dialogue is sometimes flat. And the author does too much telling and not enough showing.

These stylistic problems might have been overlooked if the characters had been a little more interesting. But they are mostly stock characters and their motivations are not always clear. I must admit that the villain was a most improbable and inconsistent characterization.

Nor, I fear, was the romance as well developed as it could have been. While I suppose Nicola's attraction to a man who was unlike the fawning swains she was used to made a certain amount of sense, I never really felt I understood what there was about the heroine to induce Cranborne to so quickly abandon his bachelor ways.

So, while I admire Patrick's presentation of Regency fashions and Regency behavior, I find I cannot recommend The Dark Stranger. There is nothing dreadful about the book, but there was nothing that I found especially enjoyable either.

--Jean Mason

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