At The Midnight Hour, by Alicia Scott

29 Aug

At the Midnight Hour, by Alicia Scott*

* This is an old pseudonym for suspense writer Lisa Gardner, under which she published her first thirteen novels with Harlequin in the early 1990s.

From the waaaaaay back machine (also known as my local library’s used book store) comes this charming little novel—Ms Scott/Gardner’s fourth published work, in fact. It is also the first of her Guiness Gang quintet, which follow four brothers and their younger sister’s stories.

Current fans of Ms Gardner’s suspense novels will find these earlier efforts to be much lighter on the mystery, and to focus much more on the relationship. Coupled with the restrictions of category romance writing (length, language, etc.), these novels are quite different in style than her more recent releases. Nonetheless, they are quite good on their own terms.

Here’s the back cover blurb for this one:

Family in crisis…

A child keeper.

ElizabethGuiness had her work cut out for her. Her precocious young charge quoted morbid statistics twenty-four hours a day, desperately seeking just one ounce of his father’s affection. But brilliant scientist Richard Keaton seemed incapable of love—especially after the murder that had left Andrew motherless and Richard the prime suspect.

Though everyone believed Richard to be guilty, Liz knew she couldn’t blindly trust either the rumors or her attraction to her intensely private employer. But she was hell-bent on unlocking his heart’s demons and reuniting his fractured family—until she realized that getting involved just might get her killed.

The Guiness Gang: Brothers and sister—though miles separated them, they would always be a family.

The brief prologue provides enough backstory to be intriguing. Richard Keaton, widower, has never been charged with murder. Instead, he has lived under a cloud of suspicion for the last five years, after the death of his wife. During that time, and until their recent deaths, his late wife’s parents had taken de facto custody of Richard’s only son. Now the boy will have to come back to the Keaton estate.

As the novel proper starts, Elizabeth (Liz) Guiness arrives in Connecticut from small town South Carolina** to take a position as a nanny for a wealthy family. The scene is almost gothic: the dark, cold, imposing and isolated house, at dusk, in the middle of a storm. The stern and hostile housekeeper, the aloof and mysterious employer. Honestly, a person would be forgiven for wondering whether Mr Rochester lurked about. Then we are introduced to Liz’s charge, six year old Andrew Keaton, and the story finds its rhythm.

To begin the review itself, it’s very important to keep in mind that this novel was published fourteen years ago this month. A fair number of clichés of the time make their appearance through the book, and some of them are bound to rub readers wrong: the evil first wife, the hero’s ne’er-do-well younger brother, the stoic and distant hero. My personal favorite *coughnotcough*: calling a 25 year old woman “a girl” and declaring peremptorily that she’s “too young” to be in charge of a 6 year old boy.

Andrew Philip Michael Keaton—you can call me “Master Andrew”—is a very unusual child. For starters, he has driven off three professional nannies in a period of less than four months. He has an extraordinary memory, a fascination with morbid statistics, and an abiding ambition of imitating his father’s very precocious achievements (i.e., Richard memorized the phone book at three, Andrew is memorizing the Almanac).

It would be very, very easy, to make a child genius a cartoon. Making him a believable child is not an easy feat, but Ms Scott/Ms Gardner does it beautifully. There is a particular scene during which Andrew has a meltdown where I felt my heart constrict in sympathy for this lonely, insecure, scared little boy. Even though the novel doesn’t cover many weeks, the change in Andrew’s attitude towards Liz is gradual enough to be plausible—this is no Mary Poppins, after all. Both of them struggle to gain the upper hand, and Liz is honest enough with herself to admit that Andrew wins more often than is probably healthy.

One of my favorite aspects of At the Midnight Hour is that Liz, while very attracted to Richard, does not immediately dismiss the fact that he has been the police’s main suspect in the murder of his wife. No, siree! For once, the heroine is honest enough, and self aware enough, to understand the difference between hot and trustworthy—and she doesn’t play games with him about it. At one point she tells him, in so many words, that she doesn’t know whether to believe him innocent or guilty. After all, she continues, she’s just met him.

In fact, once Richard accepts his own attraction to Liz, his biggest problem is to accept that he can’t expect her to ignore the facts: his wife’s murder has not been solved and he is the police’s top suspect. It takes him quite a while to process that, simply by giving him the benefit of the doubt, Liz is far ahead of everyone else around him—including his brother.

I didn’t care much for any of the other characters. Other than Liz, Richard and Andrew, they seemed mostly to be there under casting labels (“housekeeper”, “well-to-do playboy”, “rich bitch” and so on and so forth), to provide some sort of stage dressing for the main characters’ interactions. Which are a bit predictable—this is, after all, not only a romance novel, but a category romance novel (i.e., by word count alone, external conflict has to remain pretty straight forward).

Ms Scott/Ms Gardner has always been a gifted storyteller, which means that, while I wasn’t terribly surprised when the identity of the murderer was revealed, it did make me go back to see how that character could have done what it had supposedly done. I confess that I remain unconvinced on that point, but I am happy to make allowances there.

I found the resolution of the conflict between Liz and Richard to be just a tad rushed, just a bit unconvincing, but At the Midnight Hour is nonetheless an enjoyable read.

7 out of 10

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**This is important as there are number of instances in which her accent is made much of—a few too many, if you ask me.

(apologies for the crappy image–couldn’t find it anywhere so I had to take an actual picture of my copy)

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