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Catherine Pelliston couldn't bear the thought of marriage to the man her father had chosen for her and runs away from home only to fall into the clutches of a brothel keeper. She regains consciousness to find herself in a bedroom with a large and very drunk gentleman about to relieve her of her virtue. Ever resourceful, Miss Pelliston takes the gentleman to task and persuades him to help her escape and somewhat bemused by this turn of events, Max Demowery manages to extricate Catherine from the brothel. Once he sobers up and realises she's not a lowly tart but a woman of his own class, he takes her to his sister's house hoping she'll be able to help him return Catherine to the busom of her family but neither Catherine nor Max's sister have any intention of returning her home and preventing Miss Pelliston from falling into further scrapes proves ever more difficult for Max.
When Georgette Heyer died in 1974 there were many claimants to her vacated throne. Among the names mooted as the next Queen of Regency Romance was Loretta Chase, an American writer who had had quite a bit of success writing novels in a similar vein to Ms Heyer. Though personally I would dispute that she's anywhere near as good, in the intervening forty years or so Loretta Chase has certainly become a best selling author and her books are very enjoyable and generally historically accurate. I've read most of her more recently published works but when I spotted Viscount Vagabond, part of her earlier canon in a charity shop, I bought it fully expecting to be entertained. And to a point I was.
As practice makes perfect, it goes without saying that after reading an author's most recent works and then going back to something they produced much earlier in their career there is going to be a difference in both style and quality and sadly that was the case with this book. There is much about the story which is highly entertaining but it's also possible to see just how much Loretta Chase has improved as a writer.
With regard to characterisation, the author has done a reasonably competent job, especially with Catherine who is definitely cut from the Heyer mould of chirpy and resourceful heroines. She's young and has been raised rather carelessly by her father who has always been more interested in hunting and drinking than his daughter's welfare but when he decides that she should marry Lord Browlie, one of his most disreputable friends, she packs her bags and escapes to London hoping to find her governess. Unfortunately, the governess has married and moved to Ireland which leads to Catherine falling into the hands of Granny Grendle, the madam. The depiction of the brothel keeper, though only a minor character in the book, is excellent and Loretta Chase manages to convey the unpleasantness of such people and their equally nasty business, within the context of what is after all, a light and frothy historical romance.
Most of the other secondary characters, with a couple of notable exceptions, are well rounded and believable both in terms of their behaviour and speech, though being an American, she slips in the odd too many 'gottens' for my liking. A couple of the more central characters are much less believable, I'm afraid. During the course of events, Catherine befriends a young street boy and though he's essential to the plot, he comes across as completely unbelievable, much more a lovable rogue than the half-starved streetwise being he would probably have been. However, this is a light read and more realism would probably have been inappropriate.
My biggest problem with this book comes with the character of Max, the hero, and with the plotting of this story. Max is a complete plonker which seems almost counter to his back history. He's the second son and had been very successfully making his way in the Colonies, something of a nod to her American readership, only to reluctantly return to England when his brother is killed. Considering he's supposed to have made money through his ingenuity and business acumen whilst in America, which takes brains, Max seems to have left them on the other side of the Atlantic because he certainly doesn't seem to be using them in this tale. It's pretty obvious that he fancies Catherine and she him, but neither of them seem to realise that fact and, in fact, for most of the book Max is trying to marry Catherine off to his best friend! No wonder the aristocracy are dying out! To be honest, there's more romance between Max's sister and her husband than the two main protagonists.
In terms of plotting, the central theme of the story is fine but there is just far too much going on, and most of these plot convolutions don't seem particularly necessary and just make the story more confusing than it needs to be. Instead of a pleasant, light and frothy read, we're presented with a mad gallop through the story in order to resolve everything and tie up all the loose ends.
This is an enjoyable book but I feel that if Loretta Chase wrote this novel now, it would be much improved. This is an excellent example of how much a writer can improve over the course of their career both in terms of plotting, characterisation, dialogue and writing style. It's nowhere near as good as her recent offerings, which are first rate. It's certainly worth a read if you're already a fan and a collector of Loretta Chase's books but if you've never read this author before, I would recommend you begin with one of her more recent novels such as Lord Perfect, which showcase her skills much more.
Used copies of this book can be bought from Amazon for just over £4 which in my opinion is too much. Far better save your pennies and buy one of Loretta Chase's more recent novels.