The story: After having been missing for years, the Peckham necklace has recently been found, and upon invitation to the Earl of Monnow’s ball Helen Archer begged to wear it there. And has just discovered that she lost it there. Terrified of revealing her ineptitude to her sister, and fixing on the slightly mad idea that notifying the host of the ball would make her shame public, she decides on a hare-brained scheme to go and find it herself.
Meanwhile, eleven-year-old Edward (Ned) rebels against hateful guardians and the prospect of being sent to what he has been told is an equally hateful uncle (the Earl of Monnow) and acts on a hare-brained scheme to run away by himself to London to join the Navy.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Monnow, Hugh Castle, is jilted in the middle of the above ball and takes off to clear his mind with a sail in his boat the Twilight, dragging his brother along with him – and when a storm comes up and the Twilight goes down he loses boat and brother both. He wakes up on a beach and walks and hitches his way to London to talk to his lawyer, concocting a hare-brained scheme to find out who damaged the boat to cause it to sink.
The three main characters – earl and lady and boy – converge in London and with varied layers of mistaken and assumed identities join forces to find the necklace, find out who scuttled the Twilight and killed Hugh’s brother, and keep the boy out of danger and trouble until a suitable guardian can be found for him. Hijinks ensue as Helen takes a position as lady’s maid to Hugh’s elderly spinster aunt, Hugh poses as her brother and steward for his own estate; Ned is presented as the third sibling, available for potato peeling and boot blacking. In the course of the investigation for necklace and murderer, the two grownup undercover operatives learn about themselves and – both being free, attractive, and of marriageable age – each other.
This was, I think, meant as an enjoyable, light read – but it’s not as light as it should have been. The murder hanging over Hugh’s head darkens things considerably: was he the target? Will someone try again? Was it someone he knows and trusts? His brother is dead, and while at times he mourns, at other times he seems to forget the very fresh grief completely. More, he tells no one but his lawyer and a professional investigator any of the details, leaving anyone else who might care about him or his brother to suffer anxiety waiting for news. While Helen’s strand of the story is almost as frothy as could be wished, this is – sometimes – grim, as everyone comes under suspicion, and Hugh begins to learn what he’s never been conscious of before: what everyone else in his house thinks of him.
The justifications for the three main characters’ adventures felt a bit thin. There just never seemed to be a reason for Helen to be so terrified and foolish as to set off on her own with little forethought to infiltrate the mansion; her sister does not seem to actually be an ogre, and for her uncle to encourage it as he does is very strange and very unlikely. Hugh’s pigheadedness about revealing the boating “accident” and his brother’s death is irritating. The boy’s adventure takes the least stretching to accept; he’s a boy who feels himself abused (later chapters make the psychological abuse stronger, but I didn’t see it at the time; the aunts were upset because he kept a frog in a teapot, for heaven’s sake – most women, especially of the time, would be a bit put out), and he fears being sent somewhere even worse, and runs away. The problem with him is that he is forgotten from the story for long stretches, until he is required to fling himself into danger and bring about a resolution. This lack of grounds for just about every action would be somewhat acceptable in an average fluffy regency romance; the overall tone certainly feels like same. But this strives to be a bit more, I think; the fact that it begins with a man failing to save his brother’s life completely removes it from the start from the “madcap comedy” genre to which it otherwise seems to aspire, and actually makes the romance aspect a bit discordant. Also, the spinster aunt’s abuse of Helen as her servant is a dark note that does not combine well with the silliness.
In short (!), the plot is half grim murder mystery, half madcap comedy, and half romance novel – oh, and half boys’ adventure novel. There was a lot going on in this slender book; too much, really.