A French noblewoman of dubious and mysterious past navigates the waters of 1784 London in Philippa Stockley's highly enjoyable romp of a novel, A Factory of Cunning, composed of letters and journal entries. Mrs. Fox, as she calls herself, and her maid, Victoire (who has the fortunate ability to disguise herself, when convenient to Mrs. Fox, as a man) are running from a scandal of the Dangerous Liaisons sort that ended or ruined several lives and continues to threaten Mrs. Fox's own. Mrs. Fox is gifted, among other less savory talents, with a lively descriptive ability and finely developed self-preservation skills, which is just as well since she is utterly incapable of keeping herself out of trouble. Among those in her orbit and by whose hands much of the novel is composed are an English lord who sounds a great deal like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Lord Peter Wimsey and whose mother was not what she seemed; a parson's virginal daughter with her virtue in jeopardy; the evil and wonderfully named Urban Fine; a woman who describes herself as Actress . . . and Simultaneous Sensation; and a doctor in Holland devoted to Mrs. Fox whose past is intricately linked with many of the players in the ongoing drama in London. Players is an apt description, since the novel reads like the best kind of melodrama. But it is Mrs. Fox who would be the heart and soul of the book (if she actually possessed a heart and soul), and she is missed when she is offstage.

Stockley, who is also an artist and a deputy editor of London's Evening Standard, takes timeworn plot devices the storm-tossed sea voyage, mistaken identities, deeply hidden secrets, surprise relationships, the aforementioned servant in disguise, a terrible fire and an ending which is not what it seems and makes them all seem newly discovered. Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

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