Science fiction author Anne McCaffrey also wrote romances early in her publishing career. Her recent death inspired me to revisit those works, which I had originally encountered in the mid-1980s. One of those is The Mark of Merlin by Anne McCaffrey:
Carla Murdoch had learned what it was to be alone, growing up on different army posts. But now her loneliness is terrible—for her officer father met a mysterious death on a foreign battlefield, and Carla has been sent to live in her new guardian's New England mansion . . . a remote, snowbound place where she finds she isn't really wanted. Together with her dog, Merlin, Carla must make a new start and face demons within and without—for her father's killer is now on her trail, too.
The Mark of Merlin, published in 1971, is set during World War II. The heroine, James Carlyle “Carla” Murdoch, has grown up as an army brat, traveling with her father until the outbreak of the war. When he’s sent overseas, she and her German Shepherd, Merlin, are sent back to the United States, where she begins to attend college. Then her father is killed, and when the novel opens, she’s traveling to meet her new guardian Regan Laird, a man whom she’s never met…and because of her name, he thinks she’s a boy.
The suspense plot of the novel takes up as much or more space than the romance, and they seem to develop independently of each other. I’ll be honest, the romance in this story is not the most compelling I’ve ever read. In fact, the romance is a bit…vintage…in the way the hero interacts with his younger heroine.
“If I've told you once, I've told you a dozen times to use that stool. I don't want you breaking your fool neck.”
“Stop sounding like a father,” I snapped irritably, our previous rapport shattered.
“My feelings towards you at the moment are scarcely paternal,” he retorted heatedly, his jaws clenched. When he had encircled my waist, my hands had automatically gone to his shoulders for balance. Furious at his proprietary manner, I dug my nails into his shoulders. “Why you little…” and before I knew it, he had hooked an arm around my waist, roughly jerking me against him. He wound the fingers of the other hand in my tangled hair and pulled my head towards his.
His mouth fastened angrily on mine. He must have intended that kiss as a disciplinary affront. But the moment our lips met, the moment I responded, his intentions changed. I could feel it in the tenderness of his mouth on mine, in the longing strength of his arms as they tightened about me. I had never been kissed like this before, not even by the acknowledged lady-killer of Riley. And Regan was no less hungry for such caresses than I.
But there are some interesting aspects to the guardian/ward relationship portrayed here. Despite Carla being a college student and Regan an army officer, there is a less than ten-year difference in their ages. Regan seems much older because of his wartime experiences; at the time of the story, he’s on leave because he was badly wounded and facially scarred. I wondered how this would affect their relationship after the end of the novel. And there’s a twist on the trope; at one point, Carla realizes that, given her father’s knowledge of the kind of men she likes, and the fact that she’s already technically an adult, the guardianship was very likely a setup, her father’s way of providing for her in the event of his death. Also, once their romantic relationship is established, Carla is definitely on the feisty end of heroines, and is fierce with her banter.
The historical details of the novel are a lot of fun for me given that, even for romances published today, the World War II setting is uncommon. And there is resonance with McCaffrey’s future novels about the dragonriders in Carla’s interactions with her dog, Merlin.
… It is difficult, I agree, to reassure the timid that one hundred and twenty pounds of silver-black German shepherd was in actual fact a driveling coward. I could show his K-9 papers discharging him on the ground of “insufficiently aggressive behavior” and I would find people ready to discredit the word of the undersecretary of war.
The Mark of Merlin in fascinating reading both for McCaffrey fans interested in her early work, and for those interested in exploring early examples of the romance genre.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War One-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.