Narrated by Derek Perkins
The first in a new series of historical romances set in the Victorian era, The Highwayman is a darkly intense story that has a real “old-skool” feel about it. It’s angsty and perhaps a bit melodramatic at times, but I don’t mind that when the story is as gripping and the romance as deeply-felt as is the case here.
The story opens in the Scottish Highlands in 1855, when eleven-year-old Dougan Mackenzie is nursing wounds from yet another beating received at the hands of one of the sisters at the orphanage where he’s lived most of his life. He is found by a girl he has not seen before, a girl with silvery ringlets and grey eyes who refuses to leave him alone and then binds his damaged palm, introducing herself as Farah Leigh – and showing him the only affection he has ever known.
A deep friendship blooms over the next two years, until one day Farah tells Dougan that soon she will have to leave the orphanage to be married to the man her late father chose for her. She is distraught at the prospect – as is Dougan, who can’t bear the thought of losing his “fairy”, as he has nicknamed her, and later that night, they go through a traditional handfasting ceremony. Sadly, however, their happiness is short-lived as, in order to protect his ten-year old ‘wife’ from the perverted attentions of the local priest, Dougan stabs and kills the man – and Farah never sees him again.
The story then moves forward seventeen years, and we are introduced to Mrs Farah Mackenzie, a respectable widow in her late twenties who works as a clerk at Scotland Yard. Summoned to take notes during the interrogation of the notorious criminal mastermind, Dorian Blackwell, she is disturbed to find herself somewhat fascinated by this large, dark and brooding man with the mismatched eyes. Even after his release from custody, he haunts her thoughts – until one night, she returns home to find him waiting for her in the shadows.
Farah awakens in unfamiliar surroundings to discover that she has been drugged and carried off to Ben More castle on the Isle of Mull, where Blackwell calmly informs her that he has abducted her in order to keep her safe in fulfilment of a long-ago vow made to his closest friend. Imprisoned at a young age, Blackwell and the younger boys in Newgate were regularly beaten, tortured and raped by guards and inmates alike, until they were large and strong enough to be able to protect themselves. Dorian informs Farah that he – and the men who now act as his staff – owe their lives to Dougan Mackenzie, who, together with Dorian, had gradually risen to the top of the heap in Newgate to become the prison’s de facto rulers.
Farah is horrified by Dorian’s recitation of the things that happened to him and the others in Newgate, and her heart breaks for Dougan, who she believes died a decade ago, of consumption. Blackwell’s promise was to him, to look after his “fairy”, the young woman about whom he’d spoken so often and with such fondness and awe that she had become a kind of talisman to all those young men, a light in their darkness. Farah’s life is in danger because of who she really is – an incredibly wealthy heiress and peeress in her own right – and Dorian not only vowed to protect her, but also to restore her to her rightful inheritance and place in society. He can do this – bring down the man who has appropriated her fortune and place in society – but there is a condition. Dorian is rumoured to be one of the richest men on earth, but money can’t buy him a position in society – and marriage to a peeress will gain him the entrée he wants.
Farah eventually agrees to marry Dorian, but she has a condition of her own. Having lost her family at a young age, she wants a child, and she insists that, instead of the white marriage of convenience Dorian proposes, he shares her bed until she becomes pregnant. Dorian has reasons of his own for being reluctant to bed his wife; he desires her desperately, but his experiences have given him a strong dislike of touching or being touched, and he has become so accustomed to believing himself to be beyond redemption that he cannot bear the thought of polluting the one good thing in his life by touching it with hands contaminated with blood and death. And as if those hang-ups weren’t enough, he fears that taking Farah to bed will reveal the depth of his feelings for her and will enable her to exploit such a weakness.
It’s true that this isn’t an especially original story; the emotionally scarred hero who is resistant to love because it makes him feel weak paired with the woman prepared to love him enough for both of them. But Kerrigan Byrne’s lush writing and the depth of the emotion with which she imbues the central relationship are so compelling that any lack of originality is quickly forgotten. That’s not to say the book is without its faults. I had a few minor issues with some aspects of the story such as the secondary plot dealing with the issue of Farah’s inheritance, which is not particularly well developed and with the speed with which Dorian manages to overcome his issues. Farah is perhaps a bit too good to be true, and in spite of the fact that she’s been exposed to some of the less savoury aspects of life in the course of her work, I still found it difficult to accept that she’d be comfortable doing some of the things Dorian asks her to do in – and out of – bed. And Dorian emerges more as a crusading philanthropist than the disgusting, black-hearted beast he clearly believes himself to be. But that’s the nature of the beastly hero, I suppose; he believes himself to be far more black than he is painted.
I’ve listened to Derek Perkins on several occasions now, and have generally enjoyed his narrations. He has a nicely modulated baritone which is expressive and easy to listen to, and he performs both narrative and dialogue in a naturalistic manner and at a good pace. This is a book with very few secondary characters, but Mr Perkins performs them skilfully and differentiates well between them. There’s Murdoch, the older, gravelly-voiced Scotsman who is one of the few who knows Dorian’s secrets; Tallow, the stammering young footman, Frank, the gentle giant whose slow, deliberate speech is indicative of his impaired mental state, and Gemma, the blowsy ex-tart whom Farah befriends, complete with a brash, cockney accent.
Perkins’ portrayal of both principals is generally good, although there were a couple of times I felt that Farah sounded more like Mrs Doubtfire than the heroine of a steamy romance! (With apologies to anyone who needs the brain-bleach after that!) On the whole, however, Mr Perkins’ softly Scottish accented speech suits the character well; she’s determined but calmly so, not a woman given to histrionics no matter how far she is pushed. I particularly enjoyed his interpretation of Dorian, a man used to exercising an iron control over himself who finds it increasingly difficult not to unravel in Farah’s presence. Dorian’s sardonic, clipped speech perfectly conveys the man’s ruthlessness and disdain for authority; but as the story progresses, we hear a different character emerging as a result of the narrator’s subtle colourations of tone and timbre, and all in all it’s a performance I’d rate as being considerably above average.
If you’re in the mood for a slightly overblown but richly romantic listen, then you might want to add The Highwayman to your wish list.
Book Content: B+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Tantor Audio
The Highwayman was provided to AudioGals by Tantor Audio for a review.