12 December, 2008

The Blackstone Key, by Rose Melikan. Book review

Touchstone, 2008. ISBN 978-1-1465-6080-7. 435 pages.

The Blackstone Key is a light espionage mystery with a touch of gothic romance, set in England in 1795 during the war with Revolutionary France. All the characters are fictional.

Mary Finch is living in genteel poverty as a teacher at a minor school for young ladies when she receives a letter from her wealthy uncle inviting her to visit him at his home on the Suffolk coast. Mary jumps at the chance, but when she arrives she finds her uncle has died and the house is being used for smuggling – or something worse. England is at war with the Revolutionary government in France, and there are fears of an imminent French invasion. When Mary discovers coded documents in her uncle’s study, she finds herself drawn into a deadly web of ruthless spies. Was her uncle part of the plot? Why is the artillery officer Captain Holland, whom Mary met by chance on her journey, so eager to be helpful? Can Mary break the code to help the charming and handsome Paul Deprez track down the spies before they betray England’s most important secrets to the enemy? Mary has to choose who to trust, knowing that a wrong choice might threaten not only her own life but the security of her country.

The Blackstone Key features plenty of period detail. If you want to imagine what it was like to travel in the days of the mail coaches, watch the workings of social hierarchy among the minor gentry, or understand the intricacies of eighteenth-century inheritance law, this novel is for you. I was particularly interested in the portrayal of the City Police in Bow Street, recognisably the forerunners of a regular police service. The prose has a rather formal style with few modern phrases, which I guess is intended to achieve a period feel, though I felt it sounded a little stilted at times. The dialogue of the upper- and middle-class characters (most of the cast) felt reasonably plausible, though I did wonder whether an army officer from a gentry family would really have used quite so much bad language in the presence of a lady, and whether a nicely brought up young lady would not have been much more offended than Mary Finch apparently was. The lower-class characters were less convincing, and some of the thieves’ cant (“Say, mister”, or “I ain’t holding out on you, gov”) sounded to me more Sam Spade than 1795. I also admit to being surprised that the pistol was the clandestine weapon of choice among the spies, even being used for assassinations. I had the impression that the typical pistol of the Napoleonic period was big, cumbersome, noisy, slow to load, prone to misfire and not very accurate, so I was expecting the cloak-and-dagger agents to use, well, daggers. However, I’m not an expert on the late eighteenth century.

The main characters are mixed, with good and not-so-good qualities. Mary Finch is lively, brave, intelligent and sweet-natured, but she is also inexperienced, na├»ve and rather prone to let her imagination run away with her. Most of the story is told from Mary’s point of view, so she is the character we get to know best. Captain Holland is a professional with an important job, but he is insecure about his lack of educational polish and his awkward social position as the poor relation of a rich family. I’d have liked to see more of Holland’s point of view. The secondary characters, such as the inept parson, the interfering matriarch, the snobbish society ladies, the slow-witted magistrate and the talkative coach passengers, are drawn in almost as much detail as the main characters. Which is quite attractive in its way, but it does make it tricky to keep track of who is important and who is incidental.

The romantic sub-plot is attractively low-key. Mary attracts the interest of two contrasting men, the rough and ready artillery officer Captain Holland and the charming, urbane and wealthy Paul Deprez. Both attract her in their different ways and she cannot help comparing the two. Her feelings develop gradually over the course of the novel as she gets to know more about each man, which I always find more satisfying than a love-at-first-sight romance.

The espionage plot is interesting, if a bit slight. I spotted the villain and the hero immediately, but that might just have been luck, and there is enough bluff, double-bluff, agents and double-agents to keep the reader guessing about the exact details of the plot. There are a few turns that rely either on coincidence (Mary happening to be travelling in search of her long-lost uncle at just that time and place) or on the villains’ carelessness, but coincidence does happen in the real world.

I found the pace of the novel uneven, and this made it hard for me to get really engaged with the book or the characters. Not very much happens for the first 100 pages, as Mary journeys to Suffolk in the company of a cast of gossipy minor characters most of whom never reappear. Things briefly pick up with an incident of excitement, action and mystery – but then the novel goes back to chattering in drawing rooms for another 100+ pages. By the time I had plodded through lengthy details about Captain Holland’s romantic aspirations and equivocal social position, and the legal niceties of Mary’s inheritance and her introduction into polite local society, all in the company of yet another new cast of talkative and mostly incidental characters, I had completely lost track of the espionage plot and its dramatis personae. When the suggestion of spies and codes popped up again halfway through the novel I had to flick back to try to remind myself what might be going on, who might be involved and why it would even matter. The cosy drawing-room world is so wrapped up in its trivial concerns about who is going to marry whom and the correct frock to wear for a tea party that the espionage plot loses any sense of real menace. Only in about the last third of the novel does the mystery start to find its stride, and by then it’s getting rather squashed for space and is resolved in something of a rush.

I would have preferred more of the mystery and less of the mild social comedy, or at the very least closer intercutting between the two so that I didn’t lose sight of the mystery for 100 pages at a time. I think this disjointed plot is a major reason why I felt the book overall felt rather “flat”.

Mix of lightweight mystery, slightly gothic romance and mild social comedy in genteel eighteenth-century England.


Rick said...

From your description this sounds like a near miss.

Captain Holland’s romantic aspirations and equivocal social position, and the legal niceties of Mary’s inheritance and her introduction into polite local society. Isn't that grist in the mill of Regencies? The problem is combining it with life and death situations without trivializing it by comparison. No one thinks of Elizabeth Bennet's life and problems as trivial, but in Austen's work the Napoleonic Wars are so completely offstage that from her books you'd never know England was at war. Combining the two is dicier.

Pistols for cloak and dagger work: This actually strikes me as plausible, because even an 18th century pistol had the the basic point & shoot advantage of guns. I would rather shoot someone and take my chances with the bang alerting others than struggle with a knife and maybe lose.

Kathryn Warner said...

I really like the idea of this, but it sounds like the novel doesn't work very well, unfortunately!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Carla.

Carla said...

Rick - "Near miss" is a good description. Neither very good nor very bad, but just a bit - flat. It was hard to figure out why, and my best guess is the problem of combining a Jane Austen-style Regency with a war and espionage plot. It also takes a tremendous amount of skill to get a comedy of manners to work well. Jane Austen is a hard act to follow!

Thanks for your comments about pistols. You know more about gunpowder weaponry than I do, so I'll take your word for it that they were better adapted to the job than I thought!

Alianore - I too liked the idea, and was a bit disappointed. You might think differently, though - there are plenty of five-star reviews on Amazon to disagree with me! So if you like the idea and come across a copy you might want to give it a try and see what you think.