The Rec League: Looking for Pimpernel-y Books

Book The Scarlet Pimpernel In a recent discussion, StarOpal asked if we could help her compile a list of books similar to The Scarlet PimpernelWe can definitely do that, right? 

The Scarlet Pimpernel, if you're not familiar with it, is an adventure series written by Baroness Orczy about a dashing dude full of derring-do who rescues French aristocracy from the guillotine. He disguises himself and hides in plain sight in society as a clueless dingbat, while pulling off all sorts of dashing things.

And of course there's Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, beginning with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation ( A | BN | K | ARe ), all of which are terrific. 

(Wait.  My brain just exploded with contemporary gender-flipping of the Pimpernel…. What if the Kardashians are actually spies?)

Karin suggested in the same thread No Ordinary Groom by Gayle Callen ( Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | All Romance eBooks ):

Arranged marriage, he’s a spy pretending to be a fop.

Well, hello there, my catnip. How you been? 

Book His at Night That calls to mind one of my favorites and a previous book club pick: His at Night by Sherry Thomas (Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | All Romance eBooks). This book is also known as “the Sherry Thomas with the really yellow gold cover.” (I know a few librarians just flinched because, yeah, I am that patron. Sorry.)

That's also an arranged marriage between a woman trying to escape an abusive uncle and a man whom everyone assumes is really, really dumb but really, really isn't.

When he reveals himself… oh, the feels. I had feels hangover after reading it. And it's currently $3.99, too – nice! 

What other Pimpernel-y books do you recommend? (And can “Pimper Nelly” be the name of my alt rock cover band?)

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Russell Thorndyke’s “Dr. Syn” series and Rafael Sabatini’s “Captain Blood” stories are natural companions. They were written at the same time and have that same swashbuckling derring-do feel. They’re not romances, but there are romances in them.
    How about the early Georgette Heyers? “These Old Shades” and “Devil’s Cub” in particular?
    There are few romances with a French Revolution theme. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens would be a good one.
    And DK Broster’s stories about the Jacobites in Scotland.

  2. 2
    Tabs says:

    Across The Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund is a dystopian-YA retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

    The first book in the series (standalones in same world), For Darkness Knows The Stars, is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Since Persuasion is my favorite romance of all time, I won’t lie that I totally went into that book with my “spectacles of skepticism” firmly in place but Holy Crapbuckets did it suck me in and blow me away. 

    And now I think “Star-Swept Sea” is moving up my TBR.

  3. 3
    Faellie says:

    Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities?

    Some of Elizabeth Thornton’s books might work – try Tender is the Storm and Velvet is the Night –

    Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, The Reluctant Widow and Talisman Ring aren’t French Revolution but are similar period and have a bit of a Scarlet Pimpernel feel about them.

  4. 4
    Jenn says:

    Thanks for the heads up on For Darkness Knows The Stars, Tabs!

    I like you, love, love, love Persuasion.

    It’s got one of my favorite line in it.

    Captain Harvile: I won’t allow it to be any more man’s nature than women’s to be inconstant or to forget those they love or have loved. I believe the reverse. I believe… Let me just observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose, and verse. I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which did not have something to say on women’s fickleness.

    Anne Elliot: But they were all written by men. ”

  5. 5
    Cheryl S says:

    Elizabeth Boyle has a couple that fit into the ‘spy behaving like a dweeb/idiot’ genre.  One is Stealing the Bride and the other is Confessions of a little Black Gown.  Both are part of longer multi book series.

    If you prefer a contemporary spin on the same theme, there is also Christine Merrill’s’ Need to Know, which is very fast paced and entertaining.

  6. 6
    June says:

    Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series has a definite “Pimpernel” feel.  Highly recommend.

  7. 7
    Lynnd says:

    I love the Scarlet Pimpernel and stories like it and would highly recommend Joanna Bourne’s Spymasters series.  They are set during the Revolution and Empire period and mostly involve the machinations between the English and French spy services.  The most Pimpernellian is probably The Forbidden Rose which is set during the Terror, but I enjoyed all of them.  I can’t wait for her next book which is coming out in November.

    I think that this thread is going to be very damaging to my wallet :-).

  8. 8
    Spygirl7 says:

    Persuasion is my favourite romance too! The librarian in me has to point out that the title of Diana Peterfreund’s retelling of it is For Darkness SHOWS the Stars, in case you need to find it in your library catalogue (our catalogue, at least, is very unforgiving when it comes to searching).
    I had no idea that her second book, Across a Star-Swept Sea, had anything to do with The Scarlet Pimpernel. I need to get right on that one.
    I watched the tv adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel when I was about six and I’ve never been the same since. Spies and secret identities are by far my biggest catnip (Clark Kent/Superman, Nikita, Alias, Chuck . . .)

  9. 9
    Lisa J says:

    The Raider by Jude Deveraux and A Rose In Winter by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss are both Pimpernel-y.  Course, they are both old skool.

  10. 10
    Sarah S says:

    A 20th century series with Pimpernel-like aspects is Leslie Charteris’s “The Saint.” It’s sort of Scarlet Pimpernel meets James Bond.

    And anyone who likes the Scarlet Pimpernel will probably like Scaramouche as well.

  11. 11
    Karin says:

    Pimpernel fans would also probably enjoy Nita Abrams’s Napoleonic Wars spy stories. Sadly, the two best ones, A Question of Honor and The Spy’s Bride, are not available as e-books.  The last in the series, The Spy’s Reward, is on Kindle, but I honestly think it cannot be fully appreciated without reading the earlier books first.

  12. 12

    I second the “Scaramouche” and Joanna Bourne recommendations!

    I’d also suggest Tracy Grant’s Napoleonic spy mystery novels (you can start with either “Secrets of a Lady” or “Vienna Waltz”) and Iris Johansen’s “Storm Winds” (an oldie but goody set during the Terror.)

    I did a few “If You Like” posts on related topics on my website:

    Happy reading!

  13. 13

    Also, Diana Peterfreund’s “Across a Star Swept Sea” was wonderful—such a clever and convincing re-telling on “The Scarlet Pimpernel” with a female Pimpernel.

  14. 14

    Ooops, “retelling of”, not “retelling on”.  This is what you get when you type with a splint on one hand….

  15. 15
    kkw says:

    The Scarlet Pimpernel is actually the first in a series. Orczy wrote a zillion others, and they’re free on Project Gutenberg. I’m here to bring down the expense of this thread!

    Of course, if the sexism, classism, and anti-semetism of the original bum you out, I should maybe mention they don’t go away, or get any easier to ignore.

    Third the recommendations for Bourne and Sabatini. And Sherry Thomas – I adored that book, really all her books.

    Also, although it’s soldiering and not spying, if you’re looking for swashbuckling and derring do, the (non-fiction) Memoirs of Baron de Marbot are fantastic, as are the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story adaptation, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. Take place during Napoleonic wars. Gutenberg has both those as well. Wait, the de Marbot is only in French, alas.

    The best swashbuckling author is probably Dumas, but his only book set during the French Revolution is The Last Cavalier. It’s OK but not his best, but there are really good biographies of its inspiration, Dumas’s father – That’s the pere of Dumas pere, also confusingly named Alexandre Dumas, yes. Aka de le Pailleterie, son of a slave and a Marquis, and I think still the highest ranking person of color ever in a European army, a general who was a rival of Napoleon, it’s an amazing story. Dumas’s best is the 3 Musketeers, but the new(ish) translation of The Count of Monte Cristo is not how you remember it – there’s hashish, and the earliest Lesbian character I’ve run across.

  16. 16
    Tabs says:

    @spygirl7 Ack! No need to apologize! I actually got both titles wrong. I have such a hard time with long titles.

  17. 17

    Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier. Like a pirate/smuggler version of Pimpernel. The pirate is the Frenchman (well, from Brittany) and the creek is on the heroine’s (husband’s) property in Cornwall. (This is perhaps the only adultery book ever that didn’t bother me. Read it and you’ll understand, but basically the heroine wasn’t doing anything wrong given the circumstances of her arranged marriage, her husband giving his ‘buddy’ tacit permission to pursue, and the ending … I hate adultery in novels, but this one is the exception that proves the rule).

    And the movie! Oh, the movie! The 1944 version has Joan Fontaine, and her dark hair was just right for Dona, the heroine. Looking back, I wonder if there are any WWII meanings tucked into the movie. I should rewatch it.

    The story is set during the Reign of Charles II, so there are a lot of men with shoe buckles and fancy dressing. Like Rebecca, it’s more gothic than current taste, and the writing is not the modern style – ie, no explicit sex, lots of setting descriptions, etc. There is a wonderful escape scene, and cat and mouse evading the law who is hunting the pirate, and IMO the language is glorious when you want to immerse in the earlier style.

    Warning: the ending is a cry. It did not end the way I WANTED it to, darn it.

    But I do love that book.

  18. 18
    Algae says:

    The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer features gender-bending Jacobite spies.

  19. 19
    crypticusername says:

    There’s always The Indigo Blade and Jude Deveraux’s The Raider. I haven’t read either in over 15 years, but I remember that Indigo Blade’s cover proudly proclaimed that it was inspired by THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.

    Seeing this topic today made me so happy. :-)


  20. 20
    Heather S says:

    Don’t forget “The Sandalwood Princess” by Loretta Chase!

    “Determined to uncover who stole her sandalwood statue, Amanda Cavencourt – an Englishwoman living in India – is shocked to learn the culprit is a notorious rogue known as the Falcon. Why would a man renowned for his dangerous and delicate missions indulge in petty thievery? Intrigued by the mystery — and rumors of the Falcon’s devilish charm and good looks—Amanda sets out on the trail of the brazen blackguard. But what she stumbles upon is a man who just may be her perfect match….”

    The Falcon spends months on board a ship with Amanda, passing himself off as the valet of Jessup (who is actually his servant, but was poisoned and is sick as a dog most of the journey).

    If you can get past the almost cartoonish display of the Indian servant, the book is pretty engaging.

  21. 21
    Lynnd says:

    I would also add Catherine Delors’ Mistress of the Revolution and For the King to the list.

  22. 22
    Todd says:

    An old Georgette Heyer, The Black Moth, might suit you. Eighteenth century, disguises, etc.

    And Scaramouche … one of the best opening lines EVER: “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

  23. 23
    Leigh Anne says:

    Marsha Canham’s Pale Moon Rider should be added to the list.

  24. 24
    Rebecca says:

    @Jenn: I love Persuasion too, but because Austen was a lot more complicated than we give her credit for, it’s important to remember that the lines you quoted do NOT appear in the novel, but rather in the film adaptation (which is pretty good, but a creature of the late 20th/early 21st century, rather than the early 19th).  The novel reads:

    Captain Harville:  “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.

    Anne: “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

    Not quite an unambiguous position for the heroine of a novel written by a woman.  But it’s actually more interesting to suggest that women are as a group less articulate due to lack of training than just that they are more oppressed.  A perfect illustration of the difference between personal and systemic discrimination.  The movie oversimplifies (as movies tend to.)

    Going back to the thread topic, my favorite French Revolution book is still Geoffrey Trease’s YA Victory at Valmy (alternate title “Thunder Over Valmy”), which is pretty awesomely pro-Revolution.  (See again: difference between personal and systemic oppression for why that’s a cool thing.)  If the English-aristocrat-disguised-as-buffoon aspect is the catnip, some of the Lord Peter Wimsey and most of the Campion mysteries qualify, and some of them also have a love story.  In terms of unassuming Englishman outwits foreign baddies, some of the John Buchan books are fun, if you can swallow the casual racism/imperialism.

  25. 25
    Barbara Bowen says:

    Along the same lines as Sherry Thomas’ His At Night, with the stunningly dumb/not really dumb hero, Patricia Briggs Dragon Bones features a hero who faked a brain injury to outwit a tyrannical father.  Not really a historical, being fantasy, but the same sly sense of humor about the disguise.

  26. 26
    JoanneF says:

    Trial By Desire by Courtney Milan has sort of a female Pimpernel.  The heroine secretly helps smuggle endangered women while outwardly everyone thinks she’s just a ditzy shopaholic.

  27. 27
    Michelle says:

    It is book 3 of a series, but The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner does have that feel.  The main character is brilliant but hides behind a foppish mask.  You really do need to read the books in order to get the most.  But King of Attolia is my favorite.

  28. 28
    StarOpal says:

    Thank you everyone!

    I still have to read through all the suggestions, but so far there’s some amazing sounding titles.

  29. 29
    Kathryn says:

    I also highly recommend Sabatini’s Captain Blood and Scaramouche and Heyer’s Masqueraders. An American version of the Sir Percy is Don Diego in Johnston McCulley’s Mark of Zorro (aka as The Curse of Capistrano). From what I remember the Mark of Zorro (published originally in 1919 so only a few years after SP) is not quite as well done melodrama as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

    And if what you want is swashbuckling and panache—there is also Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (based very, very loosely on the life of the actual French writer/ swordfighter). You can read the play itself or watch one of the filmed versions of it (the most famous stars Gérard Depardieu) or watch Roxanne, Steve Martin’s 1980s contemporary retelling of the story.

  30. 30
    Terrie says:

    Love “His at Night” by Sherry Thomas. Joanna Bourne is wonderful for the spy thing.

    I have to give a shout out to the miniseries of the Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. My husband still walks around saying “Sink me!” every so often. And while I’m on screen viewing (I hope that’s okay) and we’re talking Captain Blood, the old black and white with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland is great fun.

    It’s not Scarlet Pimpernel identity stuff but on the adventure front, “As You Desire” by Connie Brockway is a great deal of fun (and it’s currently only 2.99 at Amazon for Kindle).

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