Miss Bates launches her annual Christmas romance reviewing month with … a Christmas-set murder mystery, a “not-a-romance” review of Francis Duncan’s 1949 Murder For Christmas. (Duncan’s work was recently reissued, revived, and thank the Good Lord for that, because it’s glorious.) And yet, Murder For Christmas contains a vein of commentary about Miss Bates’s most beloved and oft-read genre in the voice of Duncan’s romance-reading, old-bachelor, amateur sleuth, Mordecai Tremaine, an engaging, loveable, and despite his appearance seventy years ago (with Duncan’s first Tremaine mystery, Murder Has A Motive) fresh-feeling main character. Duncan’s Murder For Christmas has that old-fashioned Agatha-Christie closed-room, country-estate premise with elegant prose, adept plotting and pacing, and a great voice in Mordecai Tremaine. Miss Bates would venture to say there is something cleaner, more sophisticated in Duncan that Christie lacks (*runs away in fear from Christie fans*). Continue reading
Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.