Meet a Dark Stranger

By T. E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde)

The pile of dishes in the sink was even higher now. I wondered idly who was going to wash them.

This vintage romantic suspense novel (set in the early ’70s) was as much fun as I remembered it to be. The entertainment lies not in the suspense or the romance, but in the humor and the background. Our heroine Jane is an indolent and very feminine children’s book writer living in London in the swinging 70s. She receives a desperate call for help from her brilliant scientist brother and hopeless and harried father of 3 precocious children. He has been called away for a last-minute emergency meeting (something to do with secret government goings-on) and the latest housekeeper/babysitter has run screaming from the house. Jane must come to his university town of “Abbotsford” (think Oxford) to take care of his children for 2 weeks. On the train, she is hit on by one stranger and rescued by another (before he too hits on her).

Once “Aunt Janie” gets to the Abbotsford train station, she picks up the wrong briefcase whose contents, we learn later, are of great interest to unsavory sinister criminal types and Scotland Yard. We learn of the death of a University student (or is it murder????). Jane just wants her Bennie the Bear manuscript back. We also meet her 2 nieces and nephew. 13-year-old Liz is obsessed with Lola Montez having grown tired of Florence Nightingale. By the end of the book, she will have switched to Joan of Arc.

Yesterday—my God, yesterday I happened to glance out the back window. She was in the garden. She was driving a stake into the ground and piling kindling around it! I might as well admit it, that child worries me—”

Anyway, Liz entertains throughout the narrative:

She broke into an impromptu and quite fiery dance, whirling her body, stomping her heels, making a deafening racket with the castanets. I hadn’t any roses to toss, but I made a mental note to hide the castanets at the first opportunity.

As Ian, her Dad, says, “Let’s hope she doesn’t pick up a biography of Bonnie Parker.”

Becky, the 11-year-old, is a budding detective. Harriet the Spy has nothing on her. She is an integral part of the plot. It is she who, due to her sleuthing, insists that the accident which killed the young student was “a vicious and brutal slaying.”
Ian explaining to Jane:

 In a moment of weakness I bought her a fingerprinting kit. Now she spends all her time dusting for prints, prowling around the neighborhood, peeking into windows, snooping. She wears my old deerstalker cap and carries a magnifying glass.” “It sounds innocent enough,” I remarked. “Not the way Becky goes about it! She spies on people, jots down notes on what she sees. God knows what she’s got in that notebook of hers. It’s a wonder I’m not completely gray.”

And lastly, we have Keith, “sixteen, quiet-spoken, mannerly, unusually poised for one so young. He was a serious lad, extremely intelligent, keeping to himself much of the time and maintaining his calm when the rest of the household was in chaos.” And he likes to build rockets in his workshop.
Janie herself is a very likable slightly quirky heroine, if very much a woman of the ’70s. :

No girl likes to be called stout-hearted, nor does she like to be complimented on her intestinal fortitude. I saw myself as extremely feminine, prey to all the weaknesses attributed to the sex, and the picture of me Stephen Brent presented was hardly in keeping with that image. I wasn’t courageous, nor was I strong and intrepid. If I had acted well “under fire,” as he put it, it was simply because I had had too much common sense to give way to the stark hysteria that had threatened to overwhelm me.

If you’re looking for heart-stopping suspense, mind-boggling twists, or sizzling romance, look elsewhere. But boy is it cute. The good guys, the bad guys, the romance, the clues, and the climax are telegraphed early and often. In fact, I suspect that the author was having a bit of fun with the reader. Except for Jane’s delightful and funny family, the inclusion of which is very unusual in a contemporary gothic, He hits every gothic trope dead on the nose. Speaking of the author, T.E. Huff, with this book he made the interesting choice of using a female narrator to tell his story in the first person, even though he is a male. Sometimes, it results in something slightly “off” in his descriptions and what he chooses to emphasize in the telling. But I loved the audacity.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

October 9, 2019

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