I last read this about a year ago with the (much missed) Georgette Heyer read-along group on Twitter. Until that point, it had been one of my favourites and always read at breakneck speed partly because the pace of the action in the book demands it, and generally because who does spend weeks reading and mulling over a romance they've read a dozen times? Not me unless I have a reason to.
After the read-along experience, it's still one of my favourite Heyer's, but I'm aware of things I hadn't really picked up on before - such as the curious absence of the heroine from the book. The more I read and think about her, the more it surprises me that we think of Heyer as a romance writer in the modern sense of the word. Maybe it's the costume element of her dramas but this is a remarkably bleak book that's altogether more of an action thriller. If it was published today it would have a super-smart jacket and be part of the current vogue for literary historical fiction (and I'd really like to see her marketed like that just once).
The book opens in the middle of a family party with a bored ex-military man looking to make a quick getaway and maybe find some excitement - a common theme in detective fiction from the same era, and also something that Gavin Maxwell discusses in Harpoon at a Venture when he looks at his own need for adventure after army life, and the other men he finds struggling with peacetime. Captain Jack finds his adventure in the form of a very frightened child in an otherwise abandoned toll house on a dark and stormy night.
The weather being foul he decides to stay and keep an eye on the child until morning, and then in quick succession, he meets a highwayman and the squire's grandaughter who he instantly takes a fancy to. The mystery over the missing toll gate minder grows and Jack decides to stay for a while. He falls in love with Nell, and she with him, although she's got a lot on her own plate in the form of a sick grandfather who she's trying to protect, an estate she cannot inherit that she's trying to keep solvent, a dodgy house guest who's bent on serious sexual assault (at the very least) and a very uncertain future.
Nell's predicament as a capable and intelligent woman stuck at home with few options on the career front also chimes with the state of play in the 1950s. The reader might think that Jack sounds like a thrill-seeking liability, but at least he offers some sort of stability and choice for Nell.
Meanwhile, a plot involving stolen gold unfolds, with a dramatic peak district setting and plenty more boys' own adventure. All of which I love. For me, the combination of action and the stark depiction of Nell's situation are an excellent balance. There's some low comedy thrown in for light relief - which Heyer excels at, and this book is both typical and untypical, of what she does. Definitely at the darker end of her spectrum, but with plenty of her trademark humour. I'd also love to see this televised - I think you could have a ball with it.