Barbara Michaels started her writing career in the mid-1960s by following such best-selling modern Gothic novelists as Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. The Gothic craze may have come and gone, but Ms. Michaels, the nom de plume of Frederick author Barbara Mertz, endures. "Houses of Stone" is the 26th novel of romantic suspense by this prolific author, who also writes traditional mysteries under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters.
"Houses of Stone" is Ms. Michaels' affectionate tribute to the Gothic genre, as well as a gentle rebuke to the male literary establishment that refuses to take "women's books" seriously.
The novel's heroine, young English professor Karen Holloway, made her reputation by publishing an annotated book of poems by a 19th-century woman known only as Ismene. When a rare-books dealer turns up the manuscript of a novel that appears to have been written by the same person, Karen grows breathless with excitement.
As Ismene's discoverer, Karen would seem to have a logical claim on the unpublished document, which might be her springboard to academic superstardom.
"It could be the most important thing that's ever happened to me," she tells her friend Peggy, a history professor. "Grants, job offers from big universities, a step, maybe two steps, up the academic ladder, national recognition."
But anything so important is bound to attract attention from other scholars. Even after Karen acquires the manuscript, two competitors remain in the picture -- Bill Meyer, a pompous Yale professor who tries to charm Karen into letting him collaborate with her, and Dorothea Angelo, a women's lit expert from Berkeley who is jealous of her rival's success.
In an effort to learn Ismene's identity, Karen travels to Amberley, the Tidewater Virginia mansion where the manuscript was discovered. The brooding, mysterious co-owner of the estate, Cameron Hayes, inherited Amberley from an elderly uncle. He permits Karen and Peggy to search the house and grounds for clues about Ismene's identity while he works at fixing up the decrepit property so he can put it on the market.
The present-day plot line is interwoven with excerpts from Ismene's novel, which dates from the original Gothic period. It tells the story of a pair of orphaned sisters who are sent to live with their uncle -- in a lonely, forbidding mansion, of course. As Karen painstakingly transcribes Ismene's tiny, cramped handwriting, her own life increasingly takes on the elements of a Gothic saga, complete with dark family secrets, abandoned graveyards and even a ghost or two.
Still, "Houses of Stone" is anything but an exercise in nostalgia. This is a thoroughly modern Gothic, with a good bit of academic satire thrown in for kicks. When Karen's strait-laced landlady pressures her into giving a speech on "Lady Authors of the Nineteenth Century" to the local literary society, the young professor shocks the small-town crowd by delivering a scathing bit of feminist literary criticism titled "The Pen as Penis."
Ms. Michaels, undoubtedly aware that works of romantic suspense are looked upon as little more than frothy escapist fare, always strives to make her novels more than just guilty pleasures. "Shattered Silk" educated its readers about vintage clothing, "Search the Shadows" featured a young Egyptologist as its heroine, and "Into the Darkness" imparted a wealth of details about antique jewelry.
Reading "Houses of Stone" is like taking a short course on the development of the Gothic novel. The material doesn't always integrate seamlessly into the story line, though. Exchanges such as "The Gothic romance represents a significant development in the history of the modern novel" sometimes come across like snippets of a college lecture dropped into a soap opera.
"Houses of Stone" contains enough twists and turns to keep its readers guessing; when Ismene's ultimate fate is revealed, it's a truly chilling moment. It's nice, too, to read a romance where the pretty young protagonist isn't the only one to get swept off her feet in the end -- a couple of her much-older friends find true love, too. Smart touches like that keep Ms. Michaels a cut above her contemporaries.
Ms. Trowbridge is a Baltimore writer and critic.
Title: "Houses of Stone"
Author: Barbara Michaels
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length, price: 334 pages, $21