The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes is the sequel to The Queer Principals of Kit Webb, which follows Marian, the supposed Duchess of Clare, and Rob, the only legitimate offspring of the Duke of Clare who also happens to be a former highwayman. On the run after killing her not-quite-husband, Marian turns to Rob, who blackmailed her with the truth of the late Duke’s bigamy. She kidnapped him, so they’re mostly square, but Marian needs help to stay safe, and Rob finds it difficult to say no to her. For reasons neither of them really want to interrogate, both Rob and Marian start to enjoy each other. However, any relationship they might have is doomed by their disparate class statuses. How will the Dukedom be settled, and what does the future hold for the queer found family at the center of these books?
I’ll start with what I love- Marian is a darling. She’s deeply devoted to the people she loves without really letting people take care of her, or love her back. Marian is supremely competent, dashing and clever. Rob is also a dear, I love how open he is with his emotions and his desires. He basically personifies “be gay, do crimes,” in both the queer and happy contexts. I think both of them have really great internal conflict and their relationship is well-built. There aren’t a lot of present secondary characters in this book, but the ones there are fleshed out and have purpose. I also loved the conflict set up with the Dukedom and Rob, I think it really presented a difficult problem for all of the characters to work through. I also like that they don’t get married, I think that it makes sense for Marian’s previous struggles.
Unfortunately, there are considerable narrative problems. For starters, the central plot-point of this duology is the bigamy of the Duke of Clare and how that leaves his various children. The pre-existing marriage of Clare to Rob’s mother makes the heir, Percy; and Eliza, Marian’s daughter; illegitimate. We learn that Rob is the legitimate heir, but while a lot of the book sees him reckoning with that truth, the resolution leaves a lot to be desired. Rob has a few conversations with Percy, which were mostly good, but nothing is really decided. The big problem in his life, that made him disappear for a year and let his friends think he was dead, is basically resolved without really dealing with it. He says “I guess I’ll take it if I have to, but I won’t be the Duke.” It feels like a half-measure. I like the conversations that Rob and Marion have about the Dukedom, and its responsibilities, but because there isn’t really a solution that everyone would be happy with, the problem is kind of hand-waved away. I don’t think this really does it justice.
Another problem starts with something I really loved- Eliza. I think we don’t see enough depiction of heroines who have trouble with motherhood, or have difficult pregnancies, but it’s a very real experience for many. I think we saw a lot of Marion’s internal conflict about motherhood and parenting, but it never fully came around. At the end, we have a lovely scene where everyone is all together as a family, but I don’t think we got enough of Marian coming to terms with her feelings about being a mother, or how she plans to parent her daughter in her blended family. It’s just kind of a throwaway line, “Oh, she’ll be spoiled, everyone loves her.” But this story isn’t about everyone- we know Percy and Kit love Eliza, and Rob adores babies. I wanted to see Marian decide what kind of relationship she plans to have with her daughter, whatever that might be. I loved the scene where Marian talks with Rob’s mother, about how she was a good parent despite not conforming to common standards for a good mother. I think that could have been a great jumping-off point for Marian to evaluate her own needs and goals. She obviously has complicated feelings, but I think the story would have been a lot stronger with some closure there.
Of course, Marian’s secret that made her marry Clare is a dependent family member, her father. I loved the relationship between her and her father, and how Marian schemes to protect him, but dependent relative is the oldest trick in the book. I do buy that she would have kept it a secret, though, due to her aforementioned prickliness and difficulty opening up. I kind of wish there was more a resolution about her brother, and essentially giving him no choice but to let her be in charge. I like seeing Marian take her power back, and I think that could have been helpful.
There’s another huge issue with the book: we really get no clarity about the late Duke of Clare, at all. I assumed that there would be more about his motives and his plans in this book, but we barely got anything. Marian shows us that the Duke was a bad husband and a rapist, aside from being abusive generally speaking. But there are huge plot-holes here, which persist from the first book. Unfortunately, there are enough to make a list.
- What was the Duke’s plan for the bigamy? If the duke hated Percy and his former wife, why did he wait until she died to disinherit Percy and throw her out? The former Duchess was at war with the Duke for their entire marriage, so why didn’t he just pull the trump card and say “Ha, we’re not married, you’re a strumpet and your son is a bastard.” What was the point of keeping this secret if he hated his son and didn’t want him to inherit? And if he wanted to keep Rob a secret, he could have done some kind of dirty work to take care of the problem, like murder or bribery. Is he so foolish to think that no one would find out? We discover in this book that he knew about it, so how did he think it wouldn’t come out? Isn’t this why dukes have lawyers? The Duke has a ton of money and a scary amount of power, so it makes no sense that he doesn’t have a plan.
- How did the former Duchess not know? Percy’s mother was a conniving, clever woman who befriended Rob’s mother at one point, so how did she fail to discover that her own marriage was invalid and make a contingency plan? Why didn’t she ensure that Percy would get her money when she died? She can’t have really been that clever, can she?
- Why don’t they just stay quiet? The crown would have no interest in investigating the marriage of a dead duke to an unknown woman, and it’s not like the paper-trail is iron clad. Unless Percy shows them all of the paperwork, there’s no reason why they can’t just shut up and let one of Percy’s cousins inherit. Once a title is conferred, it can’t be taken away (except I think for treason.) So if they just keep mum for a few months, there’s no reason to uproot all of their lives and Rob can just not deal with Duke stuff.
- Why did the Duke marry Marian? The duke remarried pretty quickly after Percy’s mother dies, but why? Marion marries him for the reasons we see in the book, but we have no idea why he wants a new wife. If it’s for the succession, Eliza or another son would have been just as illegitimate as Percy. Marian doesn’t have any money, she isn’t interested in moving in society, so why did the Duke want to marry her? What is his motivation? He could have easily married an empty-headed eighteen year-old debutant, and maybe gotten some money out of the deal. There’s no real reasoning here, unless the reasoning is “The Duke is evil and likes to mess with people.”
I really did enjoy the book, but I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief. It’s not up to the quality of the first one when it comes to plot. The romance is great, it’s just that the plot doesn’t hold water. I think this book actually explores some darker, more complex themes, but they’re not unpacked very well and that detracts from it. I just found the ending to be a bit hollow. I love the idea of a found family of queer criminals out for justice, but it kind of felt like a plot beat that was outlined ahead of time but doesn’t really fit with the book we ended up with. We didn’t see Marian start to get along with Betty and Kit, and open up to them. It just jumps to a time when everyone gets along and takes care of each other, fitting into each other’s lives. Again, I found the book very enjoyable, but ultimately the plot is really lacking and a lot of questions are left unanswered.