Six years ago, Richard Carstares cheated in a game of cards and his elder brother, Jack, took the blame. Their father, the Earl of Wyncham, disowned his elder son and all of society snubbed him, despite the general incredulity that wonderful and charming Jack Carstares should have cheated. Jack disappeared from England, leaving Richard with an unsullied name and the chance to marry a lady named Lavinia, whom both brothers had been courting. For years, this devil plagued Richard's conscience... such turmoil only heightened when his coach was held up... by none other than his brother, Jack! Desperate now to find and help him, believing his brother reduced to such circumstances as highway robbery as his only means for survival, Richard also wants his brother to return home and so assume all that is rightfully his... aka the entire Earldom and estate. But Jack was disowned, right? Well, Richard convinced their father, on the old man's death bed, to reinstate Jack as the heir, thus giving his conscience a bit of peace by cheating himself out of wealth and property, for Richard does not want anything that belongs to Jack. So Jack has been Earl for a month without knowing it... and yet when Richard's lawyer does finally make contact with Jack, the new Earl insists he wants none of it, either. He does not appear bitter, unhappy, or wanting for money... and indeed, he has no intention of returning home with such a ruined name, but nor does he want his brother to confess. He has resigned himself to his life and appears to be in far better spirits than his conscience-stricken brother, making his living by gambling and merely enjoying life as a highwayman so he might roam the countryside of his beloved Surrey.
Richard seems to have nothing but problems, for if he isn't overcome with guilt over the situation with his brother, he's trying to make his flighty and selfish wife see reason. Lavinia belongs to a family of spendthrifts who have no thought of others and seem to exist on pleasure. Her younger brother Andrew is always hitting Richard up for money and her elder brother, Tracy, well... he's quite a villain, indeed. Tracy, the Duke of Andover, is also known as the Devil Belmanoir for his professed concentration of evil and his rather unscrupulous dealings with everyone. (He's also referred to as "the Black Moth" at some point, but it was so quickly in passing that I admit I'm a bit surprised that such became the title of the novel.) His latest intrigue involves a lady that has inspired such a passion within him (indeed, the word "love" seems incongruous with his nature) that he insists she will be his, willing or no... and it seems that Miss Diana Beauleigh knows a bad egg when she sees one, so it will have to be the latter.
Meanwhile, Jack Carstares gets himself arrested for attempted highway robbery and nearly sentenced by his former best friend, Miles O'Hara, who (upon seeing Jack unmasked) is delighted to find his friend once more, having never believed the idea that Jack could ever be capable of cheating in a card game. (O'Hara is a charming and buyoant Irishman with a very pretty and well-meaning wife who impetuously takes it upon herself to save Jack from her husband's justice before she even knows that they used to be friends, simply because she would hate to see a charming nobleman go to the gallows. They might not be the most intricate characters, but I confess that I have a sweet spot for them simply due to the fact that O'Hara calls his wife "alanna," the Irish endearment for "beautiful one" or "fair one.") After being reunited with Miles, Jack is out riding when he stumbles upon quite a scene: a beautiful young lady being forced from one coach into another, resisting with all her might. This is, of course, the beautiful Miss Beauleigh. Jack fights the ringleader of this abduction (aka the Devil Belmanoir) and bests the man, but still the Devil pulls out a pistol and shoots Jack in the shoulder. Jack loses consciousness after ensuring that the abductors have gone. He awakens a week later in Miss Beauleigh's father's house, being nursed by Miss Beauleigh and her aunt. He insists his name is Mr. John Carr and, of course, falls in love with Miss Beauleigh nearly as quickly as she falls in love with him. However, Jack believes that Diana deserves better than one such as he, and so he removes himself from their home, letting Diana know that he wished it could be otherwise.
The story continues on to show that the Devil Belmanoir has certainly not given up on his pursuit of Miss Beauleigh, and indeed, believes he has no choice but to attempt her abduction once more. Richard struggles with his decision to come clean about his brother's innocence and his own guilt, believing that he must ultimately choose between Jack and Lavinia, for Lavinia vows she would never stay with him if he insisted upon ruining himself. Lavinia continues to be a silly goose but perhaps there's hope for her yet before she completely alienates her husband with her behavior. Ultimately, you will not be surprised to find that things end well for Jack and Diana, and the delightful telling makes this a very quick and amusing read. With all the swordplay, I had a hard time not picturing Errol Flynn as the honorable Jack Carstares, willing to sacrifice himself for the love of a brother and risking all to save the woman he loves but believes he cannot marry. Diana is sweet and has an excellent moment when she and Jack speak in a veiled manner about their prospects, insisting that a woman truly in love would not care one whit about some nonsense that happened six years ago... nor would she care if the man in question was a highwayman, even if her father did. Other than the time surrounding this, though, Diana simply remains a lovely but rather uninteresting girl and instead, one gives one's attention entirely to Jack. As for the Devil Belmanoir, well, one can see that Heyer strives to make him more than a one-note villain. He's certainly selfish in all his dealings with his family, and capable of being quite ruthless, but I find it charming that Heyer wants to show that real love can change even a villain... if not in his outward actions, then at least with his outlook on the world. Don't worry, Tracy doesn't suddenly become a good guy or anything, but early on, he has a friend who rather curses him with the wish that Tracy should be genuinely affected by a worthy woman, which will undoubtedly pan out, even if it's not in the Devil's favor.
The Black Moth is certainly the work of a young and wildly imaginative writer as it dashes along with such drama. The whole bit about silently dealing with another's dishonor is very Scarlet Pimpernel (which I imagine could have been an inspiration to Ms. Heyer at some point)... and since most Heyer heroes are such fops, it's quite easy to picture Sir Percy Blakeney. The modern heir to this style seems to be Lauren Willig with her Pink Carnation books (which grow directly from the Baroness Orzcy and the Pimpernel). In later writing, Heyer tries to attain the level of Austen in her romantic plotlines, though not Austen's excellent social commentary. The Black Moth might be my favorite Heyer yet, for all the disconnect with her more mature writing. The enthusiasm is catching and she wasted no time on subtler details, sticking instead to the frolic, fun, and drama of a real serial. Heyer later proves herself to be quite a wit, but The Black Moth is pure fancy.
Should you find yourself unable to purchase a copy of The Black Moth, I direct you to this link, which contains the full text: http://digital.library.upenn.