The Skull and the Nightingale
Author Michael Irwin
When Richard Fenwick, a young man without family or means, returns to London from the Grand Tour, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in Worcestershire, but now in his advancing years, he feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling-love and passion, in particular-along with something much more sinister. He asks Richard to serve as his proxy, and his ward, desiring the life of a leisurely gentleman, believes he has no option but to accept. It soon becomes apparent that Gilbert desires correspondence of a more titillating nature-news filled with tales of carousing, flirtation, and excess-and so Richard begins to write of London's moresalacious side. For here is an appealing invitation to hedonism and Richard, eager to discover his true character, rises to the challenge. moresalacious side. For here is an appealing invitation to hedonism and Richard, eager to discover his true character, rises to the challenge. salacious side. For here is an appealing invitation to hedonism and Richard, eager to discover his true character, rises to the challenge. But Gilbert's elaborate and manipulative "experiments" into the workings of human behavior soon drag Richard into a vortex of betrayal and danger where lives are ruined and tragedy is a step away. And when Richard does the unthinkable and falls in love with one of Gilbert's pawns, the stakes are raised even higher. But is it too late for him to escape the Faustian pact?Review: The Skull and the Nightingale captured my attention when it claimed that it fell in tradition with Liaisons Dangereuses and echoed The Crimson Petal and the White, which just happens to be one of my favorite novels of all time. I must say, with such grand references, I opened the book with high expectations. If I had a red pen, I would go back and cross out all literary comparisons along with the words, 'chilling,' 'deliciously dark,' and 'exciting.' Thus, leaving the not so captivating blurb of, 'A literary novel of manipulation, sex and seduction set in eighteenth-century England.' That accurately depicts what you can truly expect from the book.
Much of the story is communicated through letters sent between characters. A few italicized letters would have added a creative element, but by using this continued mode of delivery throughout the novel...well, it becomes tedious, limits POV and kills any active tension. Several times a recap of events (out of necessity) is repeated in letter form. Sure, some detailing is left out to show the withholding of intimate details, but I certainly did not want to read any scene twice.
There is potential for the plot. I believe it has all the bones needed in the basic structure for it to live up to the adjectives given, but unfortunately, the more exciting, urgent period drama twists were not taken. Half way through the book I was convinced the godfather was a sociopath, which would have been fabulous, but the old man abandons his strangeness toward the end. It turns out he's just another eccentric pervert. In fact, all the quirky characters are domesticated rather easily or written off completely. The author took the least imaginative path for the 'twist' and to my disappointment, made the plot a touch predictable. The sexual scenes consist of aggressive grunting and border on descriptions of rationalized rape.
If you've read the novels mentioned above, you might find this one to be as satisfying as a tepid cup of tea.
*ARC provided by William Morrow courtesy of Amazon Vine