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Book Review: Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy

Friday, October 20, 2017 - 07:00

(I recently did a podcast on the topic of female highwaymen in history and literature, and the motif in modern lesbian romance. This is one of several reviews resulting from my reading for that podcast.)

Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy aims to be a fast-paced romantic thriller punctuated not simply by double-crosses but triple and even quadruple crosses. It doesn’t successfully achieve that goal, unfortunately. Evelyn Thackeray is traveling to visit friends in advance of her upcoming marriage to a business associate of her widowed father when a band of highwaymen--and one highwaywoman--stops the coach she’s traveling in. Robbed of her money and a locket that Evelyn risked the anger of the highwaymen to try to keep, she’s now stranded penniless in a village, offering to work at an inn in exchange for a room for the night...and then Bess, the highwaywoman, climbs through her window out of the darkness.

The story uses a collection of popular highwayman story tropes: the soft-hearted thief, the keepsake stolen and then returned as an excuse to meet again, the sudden inexplicable attraction to an outlaw. It tries to add in the sort of off-balance, constant shifts of loyalty and reliability that make Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith such a roller coaster ride. But Murphy’s story never managed to make any of the scenarios plausible enough that it seemed reasonable to me for Evelyn to buy into them.

Evelyn and Bess’s relationship flips regularly between love at first sight and reflexive assumptions of betrayal the moment anything goes awry. Evelyn never seems to settle into a fixed character, but wavers between several personalities, none of them particularly likeable. Rather than a coherent plot, we get a sequence of dramatic emotional scenes linked by a repetitive string of chases and escapes. Much like a “Perils of Pauline” serial, every chapter seems to end with Evelyn either knocked unconscious, fainting, or metaphorically falling off a cliff.

A brief literary reference suggests that the story is set in the mid 18th century, which would have been hard to guess from the fairly generic descriptions of the countryside and everyday culture. There were various plot points that felt at odds with the setting, but it seems unfair to judge the story as serious history rather than an entertaining romp. I just wish it had been more entertaining.

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