This recording of one of my favourite of Amanda Quick’s books – The Paid Companion – came out in 2014, but I didn’t immediately snap it up, because I already own a copy of the recording narrated by Michael Page that was produced in 2004, and I wasn’t sure if I really needed another version. While it’s commonplace to find more than one version of older, “classic” books (as I discovered when listening and writing my Caz’s Classics Corner posts last year), it’s unusual for more modern books to be re-recorded, so I was surprised when this one appeared. But having really enjoyed listening to Bianca Amato in A Dangerous Beauty, I gave in and decided to give it a whirl.
In the prologue, which takes place around a year before the beginning of the story proper, we meet Arthur Lancaster, the Earl of St. Merryn on the night his lovely young fiancée elopes with another man. He’s at his club, and is surprisingly – or perhaps not so unsurprisingly, given that those who know him regard him as rather a cold fish – unmoved by the news that his intended has left him, and doesn’t make a move to go after the couple. He gives it as his opinion that the next time he considers matrimony, he might as well seek a bride from an employment agency such as those that exist for paid companions, given that the qualities exhibited by the ideal companion – they are well-bred, well-educated, possessed of a sterling reputation, steady nerves, and a meek and modest manner – are exactly the same as those a man would want in a wife.
Miss Elenora Lodge is in a bit of a bind. Around six months earlier, she was made homeless by virtue of the fact that her stepfather had lost everything he owned – including money that should have been hers – in a series of bad investments. As a result, her betrothed had called off their engagement, leaving Elenora with no other option but to seek employment in order to support herself. As luck would have it, she’s an intelligent, self-possessed young woman and was fortunate in securing a position as a paid companion to an eccentric older lady, but that lady is now leaving London for the country and Elenora needs to find another situation quickly.
St. Merryn is in London, ostensibly to conduct some business dealings, but in reality to track down the killer who murdered his beloved uncle, a man who, in his younger days, had been part of a group of three like-minded men with a serious interest in alchemy. Being titled, extremely wealthy and not unattractive, St. Merryn knows that the moment he sets foot into a ballroom or any social event, it will be believed he is looking about him for a wife, and he’ll be besieged by marriage-minded mamas and hopeful debutantes. In order to prevent that, he has hit upon the idea of presenting himself as an engaged man; that way, he will still be able to move about in society but without the pressure to do the pretty by all the unmarried ladies. So, he takes his own advice and goes to an employment agency, telling them that he wants to recruit a woman to act as companion to his aunt, who is currently staying at his London house. He has interviewed a number of ladies without success, and is about to give up when Elenora Lodge bursts into the offices of Goodhew & Willis, insisting the ladies must help her to find a new position. It’s immediately clear to the earl that this young woman is not like any he has seen so far; she is forthright, spirited and obviously not someone who would be cowed by the truth of what he is offering –or even cowed by himself, a man whose reputation for cold ruthlessness sees most people treating him with fearful respect.
I rather like the “fake-couple” trope, and this is a pretty good example of how to do it right. St. Merryn and Elenora are attracted to each other from the outset, but they know they’re up against a dangerous adversary, and don’t spend chapters mooning over each other. Their relationship evolves gradually from a mutual respect and a recognition that each has at last found someone who can truly know and understand them. I liked the way we’re shown that St. Merryn is not at all as cold as he seems; in fact, Elenora is the only person to pick up on the fact that he’s a man capable of great passion who is keeping himself on a very right rein. He’s got a wickedly dry sense of humour, and again, the author skilfully shows the listener the extent of the compatibility that exists between the couple by having Elenora be one of the few who appreciates his very dry wit and by showing her keen intelligence to be the equal of his. St. Merryn immediately realises that Eleanora’s quick mind can be of valuable assistance to him in his search for the murderer; he does not dismiss her opinions and finds himself trusting her and her judgement more than anyone’s other than his own.
Anyone who has read or listened to a few of Amanda Quick’s books before will, I’m sure, recognise that she has hit on a very successful formula with her historical mysteries. Her heroes are usually aloof, fiercely intelligent, often quite forbidding and scientifically minded, and her heroines are usually “on the shelf”, also very intelligent and perhaps a little unconventional – and if they are virgins, they’re sexually curious and certainly not averse to exploring that curiosity with the hero. There’s nothing wrong with formulaic when it’s well done, as is the case here – and The Paid Companion is one of my favourite examples.
While Bianca Amato is undoubtedly an excellent narrator, her performance here didn’t really do it for me. I should say, however, that I found it very difficult to avoid comparing it to Michael Page’s version, and I suspect that had I never listened to that, I might have been able to rate her performance more highly. Her pacing is a little on the slow side and there are lots of long gaps between paragraphs and chapters (which, to be fair, are likely not down to her), some of them so long I had to check that the battery hadn’t run out on my mp3 player. She differentiates subtly, but well between the characters; her voice falls naturally in the contralto range, so she doesn’t have trouble sustaining a slightly lower pitch for the men, but I did feel that perhaps she could have pitched St. Merryn a little lower to single him out a bit more. In fact, I didn’t really care for her interpretation of him; he’s supposed to be quite cold and harsh with most of the people around him, yet that doesn’t really come across, although she does convey his sense of ennui quite well. But I never got the sense of his being someone people feared, and some of the humour is missing, too. I can’t deny that Mr. Page’s portrayal of St. Merryn brought out the character’s sarcasm and highly developed sense of irony very well, and it’s a shame that version is no longer available (unless you can track down a second-hand CD copy), as it would be nice to have the choice.
I did enjoy listening to this edition of The Paid Companion, and I will probably listen to it again at some point, but it hasn’t improved upon the older version, which remains my favourite.
Book Content: B
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in, but at the tame end
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance/Mystery
Publisher: Recorded Books