Narrated by Derek Perkins
Kerrigan Byrne’s brand of slightly darker, high-stakes romances featuring larger-than-life, dangerously sexy heroes and the women who love them has proved to be a hit with readers and listeners alike. Her Victorian Rebels books comprise one of the strongest historical romance series to have appeared in recent years, and I’ve enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The audiobook versions have the added attraction of excellent narration by Derek Perkins; and I freely admit that in The Duke, the strength of his performance goes a long way towards papering over the cracks in the characterisation and storytelling that make this particular story the weakest of the set so far.
We first meet our eponymous duke, Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, on the day he has just buried his mother, father and brother, who were killed in a tragic accident. Not only does he have his grief to deal with, on the following day he has orders to leave England for an undisclosed location in order to undertake a very hush-hush mission. He and some of his fellow officers end up at The Bare Kitten in Soho intent on drinking the night away and availing themselves of some willing, warm female bodies; and Trenwyth – Cole – decides he wants Ginny, the dark-haired serving maid. Ginny is not a whore, but when Cole offers the club’s owner the huge sum of twenty pounds for her, she has no alternative but to do as she is told. But Ginny isn’t actually Ginny at all – she’s Imogen Pritchard, a nurse at St. Margaret’s Hospital by day, who works at the Kitten by night in order to pay off the debt to the place incurred by her father before his death. Cole is well into his cups, but not incapable (romance heroes never seem to suffer from Brewer’s Droop!) and Imogen is surprised at the gentleness shown her by this intimidatingly large, gorgeously handsome but heartbreakingly sad man.
A year later, and London is abuzz with the news that England’s Greatest Hero, the Duke of Trenwyth is alive and returned to England. No less a person than his cousin, Queen Victoria, visits him at St. Margaret’s Hospital to request he receive the best of care – but he is not expected to survive. Typhus is the diagnosis, but Imogen believes that is incorrect, and that he is suffering from septicaemia as the result of the botched amputation of his left hand. The doctor in charge dismisses her concerns, so she approaches another doctor – who agrees with her and performs the procedure necessary to save Cole’s life. Unfortunately, Imogen’s actions lead to her instant dismissal – and when, at the Kitten that night, she kills a man intent on raping her, the full horror of her situation hits her. She can’t go home, she has no job, no money, her clothes are covered in blood… As a last resort, she sneaks back into the hospital and creeps into the room of the elderly Earl of Anstruther (correctly pronounced Ainster), a patient with whom she had struck up a real friendship – intending to steal the money she knows he keeps in his bedside table. She despises herself, but she’s desperate – and it seems her bad luck is holding, as the earl awakens and demands to know what she’s doing. Expecting to be handed over to the authorities, Imogen is therefore surprised to receive a proposal of a very different sort.
Fast forward two years and Cole is physically recovered and returned to society, but inside, he’s a seething mass of bitterness and fury. His wrath is currently reserved for his neighbour, the widowed Lady Anstruther, who is not only a scheming harpy who used her feminine wiles to trick her way into marrying an elderly – and very wealthy – earl, but is now intent on turning one of London’s most beautiful houses into a charity home for prostitutes, thieves and all manner of other undesirables. When, the night after a prestigious charity event, one of the female guests is found dead – murdered – in Imogen’s garden, it would certainly seem as though Cole’s objections to the sorts of people Imogen takes into her home aren’t without merit. But Chief inspector Morley of Scotland Yard quickly determines that this murder is, in fact, the latest in a series dating back several years – and given that all the victims bore more than a superficial physical resemblance to Imogen, it’s not hard to work out that she could well be in danger.
While he’s not indulging his temper over the scheming widow, Cole is trying desperately to find Ginny, whose image he carried with him during the dark days of imprisonment and torture. But as he, Morley and Imogen’s neighbour, Christopher Argent (The Hunter) work together to discover the identity of the murderer, Cole and Imogen are becoming closer, his initial antagonism towards her fading in the face of her kindness, grace and intelligence.
So we’ve got an intriguing dichotomy, because as Cole gradually begins to appreciate the lovely Imogen, he becomes torn between his growing feelings for her and his longing for Ginny – not realising, of course, that they are the same woman. The idea that they end up living next-door to each other is one of several coincidences-too-far that I’m not particularly fond of, but my biggest issue with the book as a whole is to do with the fact that Cole is so downright unlikeable for a great deal of the story. He’s incredibly rude to Imogen in public, and later that same evening threatens to try to have her marriage to the late earl invalidated – part of that conversation taking place with his hand at her throat. It’s obvious that part of his strong dislike of her is because he’s attracted to her and doesn’t want to be, but it’s difficult to like a hero who behaves in such an extreme manner, no matter the reasons behind it. Another thing that took me out of the story a few times is something I didn’t notice so much in print, but which, in audio, is much more obvious; there is a lot of introspection and internal ‘monologuing’ throughout which impedes the progression of the plot.
But as I said at the beginning, Derek Perkins’ highly accomplished narration does offer some degree of compensation for the inconsistencies in the story. His pacing in narrative and dialogue is excellent and his character differentiation is superb, something that is especially worthy of note given that all the principals from the previous books appear in this one, and that in the few scenes featuring a number of male characters, they are all very easy to tell apart. From Argent’s throaty, less-than-polished accent to Liam Mackenzie’s Scottish brogue, each one is clearly delineated and sounds consistent with their portrayals in the previous audiobooks. Something I think Mr. Perkins has really grown into over the years I’ve been listening to him is the ability to hit all the right emotional notes in a story; and here that’s particularly important as it really helps to humanise the character of Cole who is, as I’ve said, not the most likeable of heroes. He gives Cole’s words and actions the sort of layered nuance that isn’t possible on the page, and while even he can’t turn the duke into a loveable character, his portrayal goes a long way towards helping the listener to get a more subtly defined picture of him. His clear understanding of what romance listeners want to hear also shines through in his performance; the emotions of the characters are present but not overdone, and he performs the love scenes with conviction and sincerity.
In spite of my criticisms, there is still a lot to enjoy in The Duke. The writing is atmospheric (if a little purple-tinged at times), Imogen is an attractive and engaging heroine and the murder mystery is nicely suspenseful. While I might have reservations about the print version, in audio, Derek Perkins’ first-rate performance most definitely tips the scales in favour of a strong recommendation.
Book Content: B-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Tantor Audio
The Duke was provided to AudioGals by Tantor Audio for a review.