I am very fond of traditional Regencies, and I think it’s great that Harlequin has taken to reissuing two older Mills & Boon books each month, even if they are only available through the Harlequin website. That said, I was less than delighted with The Devil and Drusilla by Paula Marshall. It is a traditional Regency with a strong Gothic streak, a combination I usually like, but all in all I found it too steeped in cliché to please me.
Henry “Hal” Devenish, Earl of Devenish, is one of those smooth, heartless rakes. Of course he has the nickname “Devilish”. Of course he ruins a young man at the card tables and plans to return the IOUs the next day with a stern lecture. Of course he secretly and generously gives to chosen charities. Of course he only behaves like that because he had a terrible childhood. Two elements raise him above the standard hero: His version of the awful childhood, which is revealed slowly throughout the book, is actually quite interesting. And Lord Devenish is amazingly and openly rude to people he has just met. That did not endear him to me, but at least it was in character and less glossed over than in many novels.
Devenish’s steward asks him to return to his estate in Surrey, where he hasn’t been in years, because of a number of worrying occurences. The owner of a neighboring estate was found murdered, as was another neighbor’s valet, and several girls from the surrounding villages have gone missing. Devenish did some spying for the government during the war – which Regency gentleman didn’t? – and he feels well-equipped to do some snooping around. One person he will need to investigate is the murdered gentleman’s widow, Mrs. Drusilla Faulkner.
Drusilla married a childhood friend and was happy with him before he changed, withdrawing from her and obviously miserable. Soon after he was found dead in the woods, horribly mutilated by an animal. Now, one and a half years later, Drusilla is out of mourning and beginning to enjoy life again. When her crippled younger brother rides a horse that is too wild for him, he is saved by the Earl of Devenish, leading to an acquaintance between her and that infamous nobleman. Drusilla is impressed by his cold, unsentimental attitude and his wit, sometimes even by his rudeness. Devenish in turn is impressed by her ability to hold her own with him and the fact that she is not fazed at all by his reputation.
The author also introduces us to the neighboring gentry, and that is where the problems accumulate. From the second each character appears, it is almost painfully obvious if he or she is a friend, a foe or a dullard. A gentleman who is a Jacobin gets publicily exposed as a hypocrite by Devenish within one minute of acquaintance. It that wasn’t bad enough, Drusilla feels emanations of evil from persons or places. She can’t understand it herself, but naturally she is always spot on in pointing out a nasty character or a place where something dreadful has taken place. After 70 pages, I knew precisely who the villains were and what they were up to, which left me with next to no curiosity about the last 170 pages of the book.
The relationship between Drusilla and Devenish salvaged the book to a certain extent, however. Theirs is a true meeting of minds, of a shared wit and of emotional empathy, and Paula Marshall does an excellent job in depicting it. In addition, the relationship develops smoothly, without resorting to any Big Mis or other artificial hindrances.
If The Devil and Drusilla had only been a romance, I would have enjoyed it rather more. The over-the-top Gothic elements and the numerous clichés pulled me out of the story again and again, however. I will be on the lookout for another of Paula Marshall’s novels, but will make sure that one is not a Gothic. As for this novel, it is too uneven for me to recommend.
-- Rike Horstmann
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