For me, in many ways, this was a step back from the last few books by Stephanie Laurens. I’ve read all of her books, and the reason I keep going back even when I feel slightly dissatisfied is the woman knows how to write a mystery. That being said, her characters can often leave something to be desired–they rarely deviate from a certain archetype to the point where I feel like she could write a series starring one couple involved in many mysteries.
That particular aspect of her writing was very apparent in The Masterful Mr. Montague, an offshoot of her Cynster series, in which she revisits Barnaby Adair and Penelope Ashford from Where the Heart Leads, but also brings back Inspector Stokes and his new wife Griselda and the recurring character of Heathcote Montague, the go-to financial management genius in her universe. By juggling these two couples, and attempting to build a romance between Montague and Violet Matcham, the companion to murder victim Lady Agatha Halstead, I think Ms. Laurens takes on too much.
The characters are not different enough to capture my attention and become invested in their separate stories. There is some mention that Penelope is trying to balance her old interests, her new motherhood and her penchant for investigations, but it’s never much of a focus. The relationship with her husband is shown only through brief love scenes (much shorter than the norm in Ms. Laurens’ previous novels). The relationship between Stokes and Griselda is even more shallow–there are very rare moments of them away from everyone else, and the two couples are so completely similar that there are two instances where Stokes and Adair both enter the same room, and come across their wives with their respective children, and marvel at the newfound awesomeness of their life. The family life is so superficially described that it was nearly the end of the book before I realized which child belonged to which couple.
The book is named for Heathcote Montague, but he remains as much in the background as his mate, Violet. They have maybe a handful of scenes together in their entire relationship, all of which are supremely superficial, and then the reader is supposed to believe in their magical connection. In fact, Violet disappears from the book completely for several chapters. The book description supposes that Montague and Violet lead the murder case, and while they do end up unmasking the culprits, their part in the investigation is never the focus.
Juggling three couples with a murder mystery is not an easy thing to do, but it can be done (Nora Roberts does it supremely well in many of her contemporary novels). This book is not an example of how to do so. Scenes are disjointed, there isn’t enough plot to go around, so there are chapters discussing the same thing, as characters discuss the Halstead family with one another, with the Cynster grand dames, and then again with each other, over and over, until it’s so monotonous I fell asleep.
Lest you think I disliked this book entirely, here’s what pulls it together: I like the age in which this story is set–the beginning of the Victorian age, where society is beginning to shift in structure and composition. The white-collar class is starting to find itself — with men like Montague who deal in financial management are rising in power. Industry and trade are replacing the old power structures, and it’s not surprising that while this book deals with London society, none of the main characters themselves hold titles, and in fact, only Penelope and Adair are related to aristocratic families.
Additionally, though I don’t believe the plot was strong enough to carry as much of the book as it needed to, it was intriguing to see it unfold with red herrings and twists. Had Ms. Laurens eliminated the scenes in which information is repeated and replaced them with more character development (if Penelope’s balancing is an issue, maybe seeing her struggle with the balance, leaving things undone, being unavailable or too tired for making love, some sign that it’s not just lip service to hire Violet as a secretary) or even focus more on Violet and Heathcote, who were interesting characters that had no depth whatsoever, I think the book would have been so much stronger.
The book was interesting, but it doesn’t make my list of favorites, which is sad, because the last few books by Stephanie Laurens were among my favorites published.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Avon for the ARC. The Masterful Mr. Montague was released April 29, 2014.