Wicked Way to Burn
By Margaret Miles

Bantam Books, 1998, 309 pp (paperback)

Reviewed by J. Ashley (9/98)

This is the first book of the series set in Bracebridge, Massachusetts, just after the French and Indian War, featuring Charlotte Willet, a young widow who runs her absent brother's farm.

At first, this story didn't engage my attention. Real life distracted me, and I hardly had time to sit down and really read. But once I settled in, I found the book delightful.

By "delightful" I mean the book is pure delight to read. The main characters possess a quiet intelligence without being overbearing; the portrait of a small, pre-Revolutionary town is vivid and real, including mouth-watering descriptions of country meals.

Into the quiet town of Bracebridge (a day's journey from Boston), rides the merchant Duncan Middleton, a selfish, miserly man, and his Dutch gold. He stops at one of the town's inns, flashes his gold, and then goes out into the night and vanishes in a flash of blue fire. Witchcraft? some whisper. More likely drunken fantasy, most scoff.

In the minds of Charlotte Willet and her neighbor, Richard Longfellow, the baffling disappearance cries out to be investigated. With the help of Edward Montagu, a young British officer, and Diana, Richard's ultra-fashionable sister from Boston, Richard and Charlotte piece together what really happened to Duncan Middleton and investigate the other grizzly murders that occur days later.

Eighteenth-century America is often perceived as being somewhat primitive, but Margaret Miles portays early Massachusetts as anything but. The characters mull over timeless concerns about family and life, and instead of a superstitious, rustic people, we find contemplative characters with quiet humor and the stoic ability to face odd and difficult problems.

Margaret Miles' research is well done, but not overbearing--you read the story, not the research. Her careful writing brings early Massachusetts to life through the characters. A future romance is hinted at between Charlotte and Richard, just enough to tantalize, not enough to distract from the story.

All in all, I found this book a good read, and I'm looking forward to the next in the series, Too Soon for Flowers, which will be on the shelves in January, 1999.

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