The Toll-Gate (by Georgette Heyer)

I'm a great fan of Georgette Heyer's historical romances, and other novels. She's a very clever writer, with likeable, believable characters and intricate plots. I have most of her books, and re-read them all regularly.

So, as I hadn't read 'The Toll-Gate' since 1995, it was well overdue for a re-read. I found I had completely forgotten it, other than the general scene of an exciting climax. I also found that I didn't actually like it as much as most of Heyer's other books - or as much as I did when I was younger, and rated it highly.

It's the story of Captain Jack Staples, a tall young man who has sold out of the army after Napoleon's capture. He's not really sure what he wants from life; he feels perhaps he should settle down, but he likes life to be interesting, full of challenges. We first meet him in a rather dull setting, with several other family members who are described in detail, and then do not re-occur. I'm not entirely sure why they were mentioned at all.

Jack leaves the family gathering early, and sets out to visit a friend. On the way he's caught in a heavy rainstorm, and has to stop at a toll-gate, where he meets a small and rather frightened lad called Ben. Since Jack is friendly, he gets chatting with Ben and learns that his father has not been seen for twenty-four hours. So Jack decides he might as well stay the night, and get out of the rain.

The following day Jack meets a young woman who he finds very attractive, living nearby. Since Ben's father has not returned, he says he will stick around for a while and take on the job of gate-keeper. At least while it interests him. He instigates some new regimes in the toll-house - such as regular washing for Ben, and a clean kitchen - and gradually becomes embroiled with some highly dubious people, including a highwayman.

There's lots of action, and even some violence in the climax to the book, and this really overtakes the low-key romance element which also runs through it.

It's very well-written, of course, although there's a lot more 'cant' language - that of fighters and criminals - than I'm really comfortable with. In her later books, Heyer cuts down on this almost incomprehensible style of slang - but she evidently had it down to a fine art, and used it fairly extensively in this book.

There's some humour, and a couple of moving moments, and some well-drawn characters. But, given that all Heyer's books are good, this must now rank as one of my least favourites. Still recommended, though, to anyone who likes her writing, and to anyone who enjoys historical novels with a fair amount of action.

Still in print in the UK, as are most of Heyer's novels, even though 'The Toll-Gate' was first published in 1954.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 29th May 2008.

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