Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation floral espionage series continues with book four of eleven, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, and features droll characters bantering their way through espionage and falling in love. It’s a turn of the 19th century The Thin Man with all of the wit and irreverence one would expect of a Georgian Nick and Nora. As with the first novel, The Secret History Pink Carnation, the adventure is framed by a PhD candidate, Eloise, conducting research on aristocratic spies of the period and falling for the owner of the archives that make up the bulk of her source material. Their story moves quietly and slowly through the books while the historical portion resolves itself in each installment. Nefarious plots are thwarted and the assorted Pimpernels are drawn back into the fray when a new ruckus erupts as Eloise’s dissertation work continues.
Mary Alsworthy, great beauty and advantageous marriage seeker, has just been jilted for her own sister. Dusting herself off and masking her mortification, she is still hoping to trade her looks and sophistication for a nice title, inherited privilege and, fingers crossed, shiny baubles. Ruthlessly practical and not wanting to take money from her erstwhile fiance/brother-in-law, she agrees to work for Sebastian, Lord Vaughn, on behalf of The Pink Carnation seeking information about The Black Tulip. Mary’s work will help finance a London Season and her husband hunt. Lest one be put off by her mercenary intent, there is a marvelous fight between Mary and Vaughn about the role that choice plays in their respective lives. Mary is simply trying to find security in her life through the avenues available to her.
Romance novel Sebastians are frequently delightful and this one is no exception. He is older, wiser, and more world-weary than Mary, but capable of genuine feeling somewhere under all that wry, detached elan. Simultaneously resolute and a bit dandified, he is a magnificent urbane bastard that Mary finds irresistible. She lobs back his acerbic remarks in kind and they both give in to their attraction. He enjoys her beauty, but he adores her mind. Hijinks and not insignificant complications ensue, but everything turned out alright in the end. I think. I was reading for the love story, so I didn’t really pay close attention to the other elements.
Writing for those of us who love to recognize a reference, Willig is an extremely clever, well read, and deft author. Written with a wonderfully light touch, the books are mostly chaste with badinage standing in for sensuality. Much as a I love a little licentiousness in my reading, it’s a fair trade for such an entertainingly written story. While I prefer the romance to be more front and center, I would recommend The Seduction of the Crimson Rose to readers looking for intelligent and witty escapism.