Review: A Dangerous Magic, by "Frances Lynch" (D. G. Compton)
by Rich Horton
David Guy Compton is, as they say, a many-faceted writer -- he began with radio plays, and his first half-dozen or so books were crime fiction, as by "Guy Compton". He's best known for his science fiction, written as by "D. G. Compton" -- over a dozen novels witten from the mid-60s to the mid-90s -- an exceptional body of work that was admired but never got quite the notice I think it deserved (except perhaps for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, which was filmed as Deathwatch.) He wrote some non-fiction and some non-genre work. His last couple of novels in the 1990s seem to combine the SF and mystery genres ... alas, they were never published in the US, so I have not read them. (I will remedy that omission soon.) And just last year he published a non-SF novel called So Here's Our Leo, with some autobiographical aspects.
A Dangerous Magic opens with an extract from what we quickly learn is the memoir-in-progress of Lady Otranta Tallanton, the widowed second of wife of a Scottish Laird. She was a magician's assistant when she met her then-married husband, so there is a hint of scandal there, and she promises to tell the whole truth in her memoirs. (Including, maybe, some juicy revelations about Queen Victoria and John Brown!)
We quickly shift to the main character, Bridie Tallanton, Lady Otranta's great-niece. Bridie's father has just died, leaving her nearly destitute, and she is struggling to make ends meet and to find a job. And suddenly a publishing firm gives her an offer -- they will hire her, and assign her to travel to Castle Tantallon, with the object of convincing Lady Otranta to finish her memoirs, which are very late. Reluctantly, Bridie accepts, and is soon in Scotland. She's painfully shy, and afraid of the reception her Great Aunt will give her (as her side of the family was estranged, due to her Grandfather's refusal to accept Lady Otranta's marriage to his elder brother Jamie.) Things get a bit worse when she is met on the train by a retainer who informs her that Lord Andrew, Lady Otranta's eldest son, does not wish her to come -- and, indeed, it seems a lot of the family are dead set against Lady Otranta's memoirs seeing the light of day.
Bridie soldiers on, however. She quickly realizes that the family is indeed a bit of a mess. Lady Otranta is very nice when in good spirits, but, alas, she has a drinking problem, and she is much less pleasant when drunk. Lord Andrew is a fine honest man, if a bit stiff-necked. His elder sister, Melissa, the child of Lady Otranta's husband's first wife, is generally nice enough, but oddly unmarried though some 30 years old. The younger son, Robert, is pleasant but perhaps a bit rackety, and seems very much against the memoirs. Lady Otranta's loyal maid, Peggy, who was with her when she worked for the magician, is also fiercely against the memoir project. And before long there are threats -- a runaway car nearly runs over Bridie, and a nasty note tells her she had better return to London.
All along we see snippets of Lady Otranta's memoirs, even though she doesn't seem to be working on them at all, due to her drinking. These tell of her young life, her work in show business, her skill as a "mind reader", and then her meeting with Jamie Tallanton, and their rapidly growing romance. The main problem is, of course, Jamie's wife -- but it's worse, because the first Lady Tallanton seems to be poisoning Jamie. What can be done about her? At the same time, Bridie is falling love with Lord Andrew, and he with her. And Bridie is learning some surprising things about Lady Otranta ...
It all comes to a head, as such books do, with the surprising revelations in Lady Otranta's memoirs, as well as some ups and downs in Andrew and Bridie's relationship, and with a climactic party followed by a bit of a personal crisis for several characters. The plotting is really nicely handled, with some cool twists, and a really great closing gesture from Bridie.
I enjoyed this novel, though not so much for the romance element, which is pretty thin, as for the plot, which really works.