J. P. Morrissey, Author . St. Martin's Minotaur/Dunne $24.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-28268-4

Despite its glorious setting (Blenheim, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Marlborough, in 1905) and elegant cast (Charles Spencer-Churchill and his duchess, Consuelo Churchill, née Vanderbilt; the duke's cousin, Winston Churchill; the painter John Singer Sargent), this period piece lacks refinement. Hired to redo the duchess's living quarters in the palace, John Vanbrugh, a young American architect, uncovers a cryptic message whose meaning and potential import careen the narrative into a vast set of intrigues—the murder of a young maidservant, a missing sketchbook of compromising nudes, multiple affairs of the heart, even the legitimacy of the dukedom itself. Though generally suspenseful and entertaining, the book feels over-engineered, with its byzantine plot and often forced or contrived logic. Moreover, the droll, witty tone is at odds with the seriousness of the action as well as with the decadence of the duke and duchess and their hangers-on. The intelligent, prudish Vanbrugh is disgusted by the lifestyles of the rich and famous he encounters at Blenheim, but he comes across as more of a prig than a moralist. More than a few readers may find it in dubious taste that Morrissey ascribes some monstrous behavior to the duke and duchess, who were after all real people. Without a truly sympathetic character to engage the reader, the story, like the palace itself, comes off as unpleasant and unappealing. (Mar. 25)

Forecast:Plugs from such class acts as William F. Buckley Jr. and Iain Pears, as well as the perennial appeal of the doings of decadent British aristocracy (e.g., Gosford Park), should ensure a strong start. The author's being a New York editor and writer won't hurt either.

Reviewed on: 02/11/2002
Release date: 03/01/2002
Genre: Fiction
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