There are two types of heroes that Miss Bates avoids in her romance reading: spies and pirates. It’s the mendacity that she objects to: the hidden identities, the deceptions; inevitably, our spy/pirate turns out to be an aristocrat of the first order, blah, blah, blah. There have been missbatesian attempts: Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, for example, which Miss Bates loved up to and including book #7, The Mischief of the Mistletoe with the “intrepid,” loveable idiot Turnip Fitzhugh … the best doltish romantic hero ever. Also, a much-lauded romance author, Joanna Bourne, whose prose, subject of spies aside, Miss Bates finds tortured and oblique (though she, with caveats, enjoyed The Forbidden Rose). The last pirate romance she read, and remember that Miss Bates has only been reading romance since 2007 (after a hiatus of 35 years!) was Julie Garwood’s Guardian Angel. The Pink Carnation series is presently more intrigue than romance and Garwood … well, she kept writing the same book, same hero and heroine. So, spies and pirates are out (and no, Miss Bates has never read The Windflower). But into every sensibility, an exception must fall and Tracey Devlyn’s Checkmate, My Lord was it. Though ruined by Barry’s prose in Brave In Heart until something that sublime comes along (Cecilia Grant, we’re ready for another novel), Devlyn’s was, if not inspired in the writing, a moving and engrossing read.
Checkmate, My Lord is second in Devlyn’s spy series. Miss Bates hadn’t read the first and suffered for it, as she tried to make sense of names and aliases, relationships, betrayals, and intrigue carried over from the first novel, A Lady’s Revenge, into the set-up for the second. Her reader-sufferings did not, however, persist for long and Checkmate, My Lord quickly turned into a pleasurable read. The plot rises beautifully to a quite exciting end; but our hero’s and heroine’s characters, their tormented, oh-so-interesting interior worlds, desperate attraction for the other, and desire for emotional connection make this novel.
Sebastian Danvers, Earl of Somerton, and Catherine Ashcroft, meet when Catherine calls on him, in London, with a packet of her late husband’s letters. She hopes that Danvers can help her understand the whys and wherefores of Jeffrey’s year-old murder. Sebastien, for his part, to protect his agents’ identities and identify and capture the mole in Nexus (the international spy ring he leads) must put her off to keep his promise to protect her and her six-year-old daughter, Sophie, to Jeffrey, one of his crack agents. The reasons behind Jeffrey’s death are embroiled with the traitor/mole, in league with Napoleon’s nefarious plans for an invasion, who seeks to destroy England. Sebastian is beset by so many troubles, not “single spies,” but “battalias”: the widow, Catherine, and her insistent questions; the still-at-large-and-operating mole; and an investigation into his possible involvement in a plot that near-ended his life last year, but which connected him to his then-best-friend and traitor, Lord Latymer.
The investigation, lead by Sebastian’s new superior, Reeves, requires Sebastian to “retire,” at least temporarily to his estate, Bellamere, which, serendipitously, abuts Catherine’s estate, Winter’s Hollow. Catherine is ignorant of Sebastian’s role as spy leader, as well as her late husband’s place in his organization, having met Sebastian only as a neighbour. Soon, however, she suspects much afoot, as she is waylaid by a man named Cochran (shh, the villain!) and recruited to spy on Sebastian and deliver his supposed list of agents’ names (required by Reeves to clear Sebastian’s name). Cochran convinces Catherine that Sebastian is not only at the heart of her late husband’s death, but a traitor to his country. Catherine is perceptive enough to doubt Cochran, but Sebastian’s reticence in giving her any information about Jeffrey’s death, puts her in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis Cochran. Once the reader has ingested this set-up, Sebastian’s retirement to Bellamere and his interactions with Catherine and Sophie take over from the plot’s machinations, but retain their danger and suspense and make for a great read.
Once settled at Bellamere and with Catherine in close proximity assisting Sebastian with his neglected estate, cracks appear in our super-spy’s uber-man demeanor. Vulnerabilities materialize, such as his soul-sickness over Jeffrey’s death and the loss of a father for Sophie, his hardened heart keeping a clear head to protect his agents and England, guilt over one of his agent’s, and ward’s, capture … the demoralized state of a man who’s done too much that is morally ambiguous, sacrificed his desire for a wife and family for a greater cause, is jaded by realpolitick, and has shielded his heart against any emotional connections, even to his wards, Ethan and Cora deBeau, whom he befriended, nurtured, and adopted after their parents’ death.
At Bellamere, we experience a Sebastian who guzzles brandy and staggers and lists in a most un-heroic way … indeed, Devlyn’s portrayal of a man on the brink of an alcoholic addiction is one of the powerful aspects of her romance novel. Sebastian, in moments of danger, stress, or emotional vulnerability, is thirsty: simple as that, dipsomania portrayed in an honest and realistic fashion. Bravo, Devlyn. Because she manages to make her hero attractive and human and larger-than-life simultaneously, no mean feat. And she does so by leaving him vulnerable to Catherine, beautiful, intelligent, honourable, an ideal mother, defender of the weak, and a stellar estate manager. His need for love, connection, and warmth crack him open when confronted with all that Catherine’s person offers. Sebastian doesn’t stand a chance, “the widow made him yearn for something closer, something more meaningful.” But Catherine too has her secrets and her secret yearnings are for …. him! It’s lovely that she’s no mincing miss in expressing and returning admiration and desire. Another kudo for Devlyn’s novel. And like Sebastian, Catherine is lonely and sad, demoralized by the absence of her husband when he was alive and stymied by his mysterious death.
Another strength to this novel is how well Sebastian and Catherine’s physical intimacies reflect their emotional needs. They agree to an “affaire” to assuage a powerful physical attraction in a cool and indifferent manner. But their bodies know differently. There are profound moments and there is playfulness and both abide in the love scenes. Witness Catherine’s comment about Sebastian’s desirability, “Now that she had tasted the Bordeaux, she would never settle for the ratafia again.” How many times, dear reader, have we read the word “ratafia” in a Georgian or Regency-set romance … and what a treat to see it treated thus! And a more serious note, but equally good, a Cat/Seb exchange after the initial love-making, ” ‘Do you not wish to discuss what happened?’ ‘To what end, my lord … We indulged the demands of our bodies, a circumstance I hope we can repeat before you return to London. But to talk … why give the event more significance than it truly carries.” Zing. Ouch. Go, Cat … but the reader knows that them are fighting words to the romance novel’s raison d’être: there is no simple roll in the hay.
As Devlyn says of our hero a little after this scene, Somerton is a man “whose passion smoldered beneath the surface like a field of peat gone to flame.” Thus burns our hero and heroine’s love, love which is not forged in the bedroom, but in the relationship, the camaraderie of uniting to protect their country and avenge the innocent. To say more would venture into spoiler territory … Cat is embroiled in a desperate plot to save her daughter. Because she is NOT a TSTL heroine, when her back is against the wall, she talks to Sebastian and the final chapters are endearing and knuckle-chewing as a rescue is accomplished … with the spectre of a mystery to be resolved in the next book (fingers crossed), very atmospheric and not too annoyingly sequel-baity.
Miss Bates gave up on the spy thriller with Richard Burton’s corpse-like demeanor in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. She was out, but Matthew MacFadyen brought her back in with the BBC’s Spooks/MI-5. Devlyn’s take in Checkmate, My Lord (silly title … once you read the novel and realize chess never enters into it, nor do Catherine and Sebastian share an adversarial relationship) gives it a lovely romantic twist … the cold is not the Soviet wasteland, but the emotional wasteland of a man thirsty for love. When Sebastian tells Catherine and Sophie he loves them, links his life to theirs … as all romance readers know, that’s when our hero and heroine come in “out of cold.” Devlyn’s novel is an excellent one; in it, we find that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart” Emma.
Miss Bates added Checkmate, My Lord to the TBR after reading an excellent review of it on AAR. She purchased it herself. It’s published by Sourcebooks Casablanca and she assumes it’s available in the usual places and formats.
What of you, dear reader, are there romance novels with a spy-hero, or heroine, or both that you’ve enjoyed? Miss Bates would love to know which ones and why. Drop her a line!