A part Sherlock Holmes, part Northanger Abbey and ALL Pink Carnation thriller

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel
The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
 5 Stars

“They say he’s a vampire.” With a bang this opening sentence throws open the doors on what I dub as “Thriller # 11.” Part Sherlock Holmes, part Northanger Abbey and all Pink Carnation, The author subjects the unsuspecting reader to a regency murder mystery/romance that includes all of the classic gothic elements for a tale steeped in superstition.

This is Miss Sally Fitzhugh’s story and her entanglement with the sinister Lucien, Duke of Belliston. Sally’s initial encounter with the menacing duke is the author at her best in setting a suitably `horrid’ mood. Bored at her latest ball, she learns the reclusive duke inhabits the neglected townhouse next door. Being Sally, with her penchant for curiosity and daring, she snoops onto the Duke’s property and comes upon a fearsome spector…..

“Show yourself.” A man swept aside the fronds of a weeping willow tree. “Show myself?” The man’s voice was well-bred, and distinctly incredulous. “I should ask the same of you.” For a moment Sally froze, wildly recalling all the tales Agnes had recounted. The man’s face was marble pale against the dark leaves, his features chiseled as if from stone, beautiful and stern. The only sign of color was the single splotch of blood that marred the snowy whiteness of his cravat.

Due to the wild popularity of The Convent of Orsino, a gothic novel written by none other than Mrs. Gwendolyn Reid, (nee Meadows) fear strikes the ton who speculate whether Lucien is actually human. Rumors reach hysterical proportions at the next ball where a dead woman is discovered on a balcony bench with blood streaks on her gown and what look like fang marks on her neck.

In Sally Fitzhugh, the author has fashioned a lovely heroine who is charming, engaging, curious, and always there to help her family and friends. The all-too-reclusive Lucien would otherwise find Sally nosey and controlling. In Lucien, Sally discovers a secretive, refined, protective individual with latent erotic sexuality that attracts her like no other man.

It seems the duke’s late parents were both murdered on the family estate many years ago and because of his sudden disappearance he has been implicated in that crime. Now, once again, someone is trying to frame him for the mysterious woman’s death as well. The duke has returned to reclaim rightful ownership of his ancestral estate and clear his tarnished reputation. Against his will, Sally stubbornly refuses to abandon him and the duke misinterprets her kind, non-judgmental nature for being just plain snoopy.

Cameo appearances by several Pink Carnation favorites from past episodes are featured as they try to help Sally discover the murderer and restore Lucien’s reputation. In contrast to her buttoned-down sister Sally, we are treated to loveable brother Turnip’s inappropriate comments, a prickly Mrs. Gwen, Lord and Lady Vaughn, schoolmates Agnes and Lizzy, and Sally’s pet stoat Lady Florence. It is this close relative to a ferret that plays a pivotal role in the climactic events to follow.

I found the story of Lucien and Sally so absorbing that the current day romance of Eloise and Colin became almost a distraction. That is until the conclusion when the author finally drops the other shoe and unveils a shocking zinger in their relationship!

After 11 Pink Carnations and 2 stand-alone novels, what are the superlatives about Lauren Willing that draw this reader back to her every written word? Here are just a few: Her brilliant shuttling back and forth between “then” and “now” which is the hallmark of her literary technique. As a former attorney, her impeccable historical research. Her ability to swing between wild humor and teary-eyed sentiment at a moment’s notice. Her unparalleled mastery of the English language. (More than once I was grateful for my Kindle’s instant dictionary application as I struggled to comprehend many of her fifty dollar words.)

Not many authors appreciate and enjoy their readers as much as does Lauren Willig. So, along with her novel, she includes an interview with herself, historical notes, reading group study notes and a brief but riveting preview from “Pink 12, Miss Jane Wooliston’s (AKA The Pink Carnation) own story due in 2015. Bring it on!


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