Howdy, howdy! It’s time I get underway with my next review, of the much-ballyhooed Lord of Scoundrels. As I write these words I’m about a chapter and a half in, and already I’m afraid that there might be a little less snark in this episode: so far the book is pretty much a big ol’ loaf of awesome smothered in a rich awesome sauce.
I’m liking it a lot: the writing is sharp, the characterizations subtle but effective, and the plot darkly hilarious. While the prologue had a nearly gothic overtone not unlike that of one of Hugo’s darker works, the first two chapters I’ve completed have been lighter, airier, and great fun. Dain’s a pompous pile of puffery, and Jessica’s the smart and sassy woman who’s going to bring him down…if he can’t get to her first.
Prologue: A demon is born
Yup, the fourth Marquess of Dain had one hell of a childhood.
Sebastian was the child of a broken home. His mother returned to the continent when Bas was eight, leaving him in the hands of his puritanical father, who tried to break him with the Bible. Even boarding school brought him no respite, and in his first months at Eton, before he earned his own place beside the wickedest of the older boys by beating one of them senseless, he found himself the target of all their vicious pranks.
But a rough adolescence made him strong, and once he’d secured a position on the seamy side of society he devoted himself to all that was devious, devilish, and deviant. The Bane of the Ballisters became an astute money manager and, upon inheriting his father’s estate on the latter’s death, made a name for himself in the world of commerce.
As the book begins he’s thirty-three (or “three and thirty,” as Chase might say) and is on the lookout for whatever good time he can find in all the best salons and cheapest whorehouses in Paris. What’s a swarthy, smart, sophisticated nobleman to do with all of his ill-gotten gains?
These first twenty pages or so are offer a portrait in chiaroscuro of the man who’s sure to be our hero, though at this point he’s very much an antihero. As we’ll soon see, though, he’s difficult not to like, when compared to our heroine’s buffoon of a brother.
Speaking of whom…
Chapter 1: Is it a literary law that all useless tossers be named “Bertram”?
Chase’s Bertram Trent reminds me very much of Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster, only (if it’s possible) the latter is by far the more intelligent. At least Bertie Wooster would never mistake an icon for an acorn (see Chapter 3 of LoS).
Indeed, Bertie Trent is an oaf, a rich-but-not-quite-rich-enough-for-his-own-good idler who would have fit right in at a Drones Club alongside Oofy Prosser and Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps. Chase sums him up delightfully and laconically when she says “He [Dain] had lured Bertie – who, lamentably, was not the cleverest of gentlemen – into his nefarious circle and down the slippery slope to ruin.” Yes, Bertram finds himself in the midst of the Marquess’s knot of ne’er-do-wells, much to the chagrin of Bertie’s sister, Jessica Trent, who’s been summoned to straighten her brother right out and get him out of the nobleman’s wicked clutches.
The first chapter opens with Jessica’s arrival. She comes with Genevieve, her hilariously iconoclastic grandmother, in order to sort out the family affairs and put them on the road to solvency, even if it means taking a day job. “Work? You mean earn wages?” asks Bertram. Yes, Jessica means to open a shop, and not a “rag-and-bottle shop,” as Bertie puts it, but a proper one in which she can put to use her skill for sighting a profitable sale.
This chapter, most of which takes place in a seedy Paris curio shop, is devilishly funny. Besides the blizzard of ribald ripostes with which Jessica assails her blubbering brother, we get to see her match wits with Dain for the first of what are sure to be many, many times. I lost track of the number of times I laughed out loud during this couple’s exchange.
There’s even a bit of math: “She was, by the sounds of it, a bluestocking. Dain had never before in his life met a female who’d even heard of an equation, let alone was aware that one balanced them” (p. 26).
The funniest bit of all comes at the chapter’s close when Dain distracts Bertie Trent by telling him to check out the shopkeeper’s newly acquired automaton. Shiny shiny!
Chapter 2: Round One
Yup, they’re hot for each other. The electricity between Dain and Jessica could power a mid-sized American city for a week.
We’re still at Champtois’s shop. Dain tries to fluster Jessica by purposely standing closer to her than polite society allows. She was initially rattled and took unladylike liberties: “She should not have been looking there, even if it was only an instant’s glance, but a physique like that demanded one’s attention and drew it…everywhere.”
But she stands her ground stoically. Knowing full well that Dain is trying to humiliate her by showing off the workings of a pornographic watch, she plays along and observes its function without batting an eye, remarking glibly that the watch’s enamel is slightly damaged but that it’s in otherwise fine condition. “It’s for my grandmother,” she tells him coolly as she makes to purchase it. Hee hee!
For her encore, Jessica talks M. Champtois down from forty sous to ten for another piece, paying a quarter the asking price for a rank and rotten miniature of a woman with “an interesting expression.” What a remarkable woman! Of course, Dain will soon remark to his compatriots that “All I saw was a razor-tongued, supercilious bluestocking of a spinster.” You ain’t foolin’ anyone, bra. As much as he jokes about sex and love being one and the same, Dain’s clearly already starting to feel the stirring of something more the latter than the former.
Meanwhile, Jessica’s big enough to admit her feelings to her grandmother: “This is not only mortifying, but inconvenient. I am in lust with Dain. Of all times, now. Of all men, him.” Genevieve urges her on, noting that Dain will make a fine husband, that she out to “set her hooks and reel him in.”
Since I’m obviously not doing a very good job at snarking on this novel so far, let me take this opportunity to snark on something else. Jessica’s reply to her grandmother’s comment above, “This is not a trout, Genevieve. This is a great, hungry shark,” reminds me of a line from what is surely one of the worst plays ever produced, Streets and Boulevards, once put on at the Belcourt Theater in Hillsboro Village in Nashville. (It may have been produced elsewhere since then, but I sincerely hope not. I’m not going to waste the time it would take to do an internet search for it.)
The play is a godawfully hackneyed piece of cheese about a bunch of low-level mobsters who are trying to work their way up the mafia ladder by offing one another and doing other assorted sordid deeds. One character’s shark metaphor for the big-fish-eat-little-fish world of organized crime sets up the hero’s delivery of what has to be the most flatly anticlimactic climactic line ever written: “I’m not a shark. I’m a salmon.”
That line is one of two things Maughta and I will never forget about this craptastic work of “art.” The other is the point at which a minor character’s unintentionally funny pantomiming made Maughta laugh at a completely inappropriate (and quiet) moment in the action. There were fewer people in the audience than there were in the cast and crew of the play, and Maughta’s laugh is very recognizable, so it wasn’t at all surprising when during the intermission our friend who was performing in the play came out to see us and declared, “I heard you laugh!” Indeed, he’d been the one she was laughing at.
Back to Lord of Scoundrels. I, for one, am hooked. (Get it? Hooked? I’m not a shark, I’m a trout!) The story so far is well written and well paced. The action is meaningful and the dialogue is sharp. The book is hilarious, and the humor acts in the service of subtle and effective character development. I’m very much looking forward to more, and I understand how it is that this book came to the top of so many SBTB readers’ lists.
Stay tuned for Chapter 3: The bluestocking does some blue-balling, in which Dain discovers just how much of a coup Jessica managed to strike in Champtois’s shop!