Hello everyone and welcome to the third of our AAR blog columns. The basic idea is that we’re going to choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We’re still Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer. And – super excitingly – today we are joined by AAR’s own Dabney.
*pause for cheers*
Dabney: I am excited to be here. My fangirldom for Carolyn Crane’s books is well-documented. (And, whee, she just got a RITA nod for Into the Shadows, the third book in the Associates series.)
This month’s title is Against the Dark by Carolyn Crane. It’s a romantic suspense so we don’t want to spoil too much of the plot but basically: she’s a safe cracker, he’s a secret agent, and they team up to bring down a bad guy.
AJH: Omg, how good was this book!
Elisabeth: OMG SO GOOD.
Dabney: I read it when it came out and honestly jumped back. Romantic suspense is a tough genre to do well. One part almost always suffers. She rocks both in this book.
AJH: I literally read this book in a sitting. I can’t remember the last time I did that with anything, but I absolutely could not put it down. I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with romantic suspense – as you say, it tends to be either/or but here, the suspense was super-suspensy and I thought the romance was really well-judged because it didn’t try to do too much.
Elisabeth: I agree that the romance and suspense plots were really balanced well, even though they spend like the first 25% of the book apart.
Dabney: Until almost the very end, it’s really a sex and suspense book. Which is fine with me.
AJH: Yes, that’s a really good point. I mean, it doesn’t try sell the idea that this is a conventional relationship, so it doesn’t follow a conventional relationship pattern either. I was happily convinced they were perfect for each other and obviously in love by the end, but I liked the way it was sort of essentially setting up a future for them as a crack team of bad-guy bringer-downers. I believed in that more than I would have a more ‘solid’ HEA.
Dabney: One of my favorite things about this book is that Angel’s relationships with her girl gang have more emotional resonance than the romance for most of the story. I loved loved loved the opening scenes where they are stealing the diamonds. And the lucky lipstick. I want a lucky lipstick girl gang now.
Elisabeth: The lucky lipstick thing made me laugh. It’s just this self-conscious moment where I knew that this book wasn’t going to take itself so seriously. There was almost a Charlie’s Angels element to it.
Dabney: So often in romance, the hottness of women is external to them. Men see their charms and the men respond. In this book, Angel and her friends are very in control of the way their sexual appeal is used. That really worked for me.
AJH: I confess it did take me a little while to settle into the ‘main’plot because I was kind of heavily invested in the opening scenario of Three Women Criminals Have All The Adventure And Are Awesome. But the romance was nice too :P
Dabney: “pulls herself out of her childhood memories of Charlie’s Angels” Yes. I enjoyed the TWCHATAAAA thing. I also like the Associates Man Love thing. It offered a nice balance. Both the hero and the heroine have genuine friendships outside the h/h relationship and these external relationships have heft.
Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you mention Cole’s friends. Because I deeply distrusted them. I wasn’t totally sure that one of them wasn’t…I don’t want to give away too much…but wasn’t causing problems. It turned out not to be the case, but I was suspicious throughout.
Dabney: See, that worrisome ambivalence worked for me. The Associates are not nice people. Their iffyness made the suspense super suspenseful.
Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you mention that the Associates are not nice people–they’re really not, at least not in the classic sense of nice. And neither is heroine Angel. So when it comes to differentiating them from the “real”bad guy, I kind of understood why Crane had to go pretty dark.
AJH: I thought both the hero and heroine were interesting contrasts in morality, actually. Angel is really troubled by her criminal past and her own inner ‘ugliness’(as she sees it). Whereas Cole seems very much committed to the whole ‘greater good’ thing – I mean I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance where the hero spends about 70% of the book committed to sacrificing the heroine.
Dabney: And by greater good, you mean saving kids from featuring in snuff films. Crane does give her hero such a high moral island–if he were just, oh, killing meth heads, he’d be a harder character to root for. And yet, I’m not bothered by that. Crane establishes from the get go that Cole’s a bad man trying to prevent a horrific possible wrong. He’s a shadow hero–lives in the grey–and, in this book, that makes the story pulse.
AJH: Yes, but doesn’t that …almost simplify the morality, in some way? Because you have this tension between an abstract good (boat full of kids about to suffer a horrific fate) and a specific person in whom you’re invested (the heroine). But the abstract is so hyperbolic–it’s not even human trafficking, it’s human trafficking specifically for snuff–that I almost couldn’t engage with it.
Elisabeth: I’m not sure I needed the moral grey area there. I feel like we already had quite a bit of grey with Cole’s murderous present and Angel’s criminal past. It kept the grey in a place where it prioritized the romance rather than forcing us to to place any kind of value or concern with the villains. Walter (which is so weird because it’s my dad’s name) is just a really bad guy. And he had to be stopped. So whatever else was going to happen, I liked knowing that part was taken care of.
Dabney: This story reminds me of this issue we had to write a paper about in 7th grade. (It was the early 70’s. And Marin County.) We had to say whether or not we would kill someone whom, if we didn’t, would blow up the world. In this book, the option of NOT saving those kids is so untenable, I don’t think any reader thinks it’s a possibility. What is a possibility is that Angel AND Cole might not both survive. That shift of narrative tension makes the book interesting.
AJH: That’s a good point. I was legit scared for them. Quite a trick when you know a happy ending is fundamental to the book you’re reading. I guess what I find …semi-troubling? Or at least a bit dull about these shadow-hero types is that because they’re supposed to morally dubious themselves you always end up with a villain who is so ridiculously evil it’s a wonder he’s not walking around in a kitten skin coat, y’know? And I know the world has nasty people in it, really nasty people, but it’s like Walter is …well, he’s so sick it’s practically pantomime.
Dabney: Not to go all deep here, but, maybe the real villains we root against in this book are the dark sides of Angel and Cole….
AJH: Ah yes, also true. Um, since we’re talking about Walter, there’s an awful lot of violence in the book, most of sexualised, and a lot of specifically centred on women. If you’d both be happy to talk about it, I’d be really interested in hearing how you felt about that.
Elisabeth: One of the things I really appreciated about this book, more than almost any other romantic suspense I’ve read, is that the violence here seemed entirely appropriate and necessary. I also don’t think it’s terribly overly sexualized. There’s a scene where a very bad guy captures the heroine, which seems inevitable in this sort of thing, but instead of going straight for the part where he slices off her top and tries to rape her, he breaks her finger. He tortures her just like he’d torture a man. There’s no pulling punches because she’s a girl. And he assumes she’s the expert bad-guy catcher. So there was just this moment where I felt Crane had been very fair to her in portraying her as just as capable as a man.
AJH: Definitely – I was glad to have avoided the …sexualised menacing scene I was sort of braced for. I don’t read a lot of romantic suspense but I have so say that heroine-actually-tortured was a level of threat I wasn’t actually prepared for but, weirdly, it is kind of equalising.
Dabney: Crane’s Angel is genuinely Cole’s equal in terms of bad assedness. This isn’t one of Anne Stuart Ice heroines–here, the woman is not only as essential as he is to MAKING EVERYTHING TURN OUT OK, she’s also, in some ways, more necessary. I mean, can we just take a moment to praise Angel’s coolly astonishing safe cracking skills?
Elisabeth: Angel is the kind of Very Strong Heroine I really like. So many times, we’re told that a heroine is strong and independent, but Angel really is. She’s not only a very competent safe cracker, she’s also a terrific interior designer. She’s just successful at everything. I kind of want her to be my best friend.
Dabney: Yep. On my Buffy scale, she’s a ten. She earns her HEA on her own terms. This is a story where the guy is so damn lucky to get the girl rather than the other way around. I like that. A lot.
AJH: This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Complete convert to romantic suspense, which honestly I’ve never seen quite as deftly and successfully done as it is here. Scary violence is scary though.
Elisabeth: I’m a complete convert to Carolyn Crane. I can’t wait to read everything, starting with the next two books in this series. In fact…I’m going to run off and start those right now.
Dabney: This was a blast. Thanks for inviting me. Oh, and, what are you all reading next month?
We hope you’ll join us in the comments for more discussion of Carolyn Crane’s Against the Dark.
And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale.
Elisabeth and Alexis
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
This sounds like my sort of catnip. Thanks for bringing it up, I am not sure that I would have really come across it otherwise (despite enjoying the Disillusionist series), and based on what you guys are saying, the blurb just doesn’t do it justice.
You’re welcome! The third book in the series won a RITA award last year and this one had been on my TBR pile for ages. I’m just glad it lived up to expectations and I hope it does for you too!
As crit partner and bestie of said author, I feel compelled to note that AGAINST THE DARK is book 1, OFF THE EDGE (and 2014 RITA winner) is book 2, and INTO THE SHADOWS (2015 RITA nominee) is book 3.
I may also have read book 4, BEHIND THE MASK, and it may trump them all. :-)
~courtesy of totally biased PSA~
Eep! Sorry, I should have checked. Thanks for setting me straight, Jeffe :-)
All part of the service we offer! :-)
I am dying to read the fourth book. I’ve just reread the first three and am now like an addict without a fix!
OK, so I read this too, but my reaction was more ambivalent. Only seeing how much the three of you loved it, makes me feel kinda sad, like I missed out on all the joy :( In a way, I’ve been hesitant to write this comment, because it sounds so nitpicky, makes me sort of mad at myself. I always say I’m a forgiving reader, but this is the 2nd time in a row I’ve made a liar of myself about that here. My only “defense” is, both books were outside my comfort zone, books I wouldn’t ordinarily pick, but read just because they were to be the topic of discussion here. Anyway, I’m making it sound like I didn’t like the book, which isn’t true. I did like it, at times I liked it a lot, I just didn’t *love* it. It’s pretty weird, because romantic suspense should be a natural for me. Mystery was my first love & my introduction to romance was, in essence, historical romantic suspense, i.e., gothic romance, as in Victoria Holt. Though that’s since changed, for a long time I had little use for romance that *didn’t* have some element of murder mystery/suspense/thriller. I think I had two main issues with this book, which sum up as: I wasn’t crazy about the story. 1. It was essentially a sting, & I’m not fond of those. I find them nerve-wracking, the fear of people getting caught makes me sort of jittery in an unpleasant way. And setting that aside, the whole “getting away with something” bit leaves me cold. Usually, at least. Like, all those movies, The Sting, Mission Impossible: Meh. The exception was The Thomas Crowne Affair, which riveted me. No clue why that one was different. 2. The objective itself didn’t grab me. Human trafficking & snuff films are obviously heinous crimes & stopping them is a really, really good thing. But – and this makes me feel like a bad person – I couldn’t get excited about it. It was like a crime on paper. The lives that would be saved or lost felt too abstract to me. I was slow to get into the book too, but I think I had a bad attitude. I objectively knew the girl-gang & safe-cracking stuff was cool, but I saw them as the opening act at a concert, a band who, good as they may be, isn’t who you came to see. I was impatiently willing it to be over, to get to the main event. Which, in this case, was Angel & Cole. When the story began to revolve around them was when the book finally took off for me. I really liked both characters, but more when they were together. I liked their dynamic. There was tremendous personal & sexual chemistry between them. I liked their moral ambiguity, their vulnerability, their personal darkness, the way their relationship evolved. But, again, neither of them made me go, omg, I LOVE this character!!! Aand here’s some more nitpicky stuff I didn’t love: – Angel’s insta-attraction to Cole, felt too fast for me. Not with regard to realism, but just as a reader, I wasn’t ready to care. I was like, I don’t even know you are yet, who cares who you’re attracted to :P I’d have liked a more introduction to Angel, Cole, or both, first, to give that moment more context & power. – Fenton Furst trained “only the best” to crack his safes, but made them promise not to while he was alive. Really? I know they say “honor among thieves”, but I don’t buy it. What’s in it for them to wait? And what’s in it for him, to take the risk? At first I thought, well, his motive is, it enhances the reputation of his safes as uncrackable. But, it looks like they actually *are* uncrackable . . . unless he personally trains you to crack them . . . – Last, probably a weird complaint, but the bad guy was *so* repugnant & disgusting I could hardly stand to read about him. I mean, I’m down with over-the-top villains, & I don’t need them to be sympathetic, but I guess I want them to be, compelling, in some way, even a horrible way? Like, maybe, charming but chillingly evil sociopath, or dangerously unpredictable madman or cartoonish Bond-villain. But this guy was just, yuck, sleazy, gross. I felt like I needed to take a shower after every time he was… Read more »
Sorry you didn’t love this one. And for the second month in a row! Bad luck.
I think it’s especially hard to recapture the magic of our first books in a particular genre or subgenre. I still occasionally find myself chasing the high of my first historical romances, but the Highlanders and pirates I loved as a teen rarely come close to evoking the same emotional response they did then. I don’t know if I grew or they shrank.
That said, there’s a mysticism to writers like Holt that I think is largely missing from contemporary romantic suspense. I think KJ Charles comes closest maybe? And even hers aren’t quite as vaguely menacing as the few of Holt’s I’ve read. Oh, you know what you might try? Charlotte Stein’s first book in her current series had that same aura–Intrusion. I thought that was brilliant. Maybe one has to be English to capture that? ;-)
Ooh, thank you for the rec, I just checked Intrusion on Amazon, it looks really good, so I snapped it up :)
Haha, I tend to agree on the “”English””, seems most of my favorite writers are English these days anyway ;)
Great conversation! I have only read Crane’s _Off the Edge_ and in that book, I seem to recall the heroine portrayed more in line as a “”damsel in distress”” stereotype. I liked it nonetheless, but I sense from her two more recent books perhaps a shift to a more activist role for her female protagonists perhaps. Also, in _Off the Edge_, there is a decidedly unpleasant sexualized torture scene where the villain wants to use a hammer on the woman’s mouth for sexual purposes. Of course, the hero saves the woman, but that scene stayed with me for a while. I can honestly do without sadism in my romances.
That scene sounds especially distressing. I’m reading that one now, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’m not a huge RS reader generally and it’s the damsels in distress that have kept me from really loving the subgenre as a whole. It’s unfortunate because I love BBC mysteries, even the contemporary ones. I seem to only be able to get that kind of fix from historical romances with RS elements. Maybe because the violence seems more remote? I’d love to see a list of romances where the heroine saves herself…
Thanks for reading!
I think Ms. Crane is willing to put her characters in real danger. Her most recent book has a baby at great risk for much of the novel. The hammer thing is one such tool. I would have had a serious problem with it had it happened but wasn’t bothered by it as a way to show how prison–where the villain encountered the idea–made the evil in the bad guy so much worse.
I agree to some extent, though the hammer scene is more than just about prison tactics, since it is clearly directed at the female in the story and clearly for sexual purposes. It’s interesting that in seeking revenge the villain wants to torture the heroine via sexual violence, isn’t it? The scene is interrupted by the hero who comes to her rescue just in time, and so in that sense, I read this as a woman very much in need of saving by a man from the worst behaviors other men can inflict on women.
I do think Laney is the least empowered of Ms. Crane’s heroines.
I downloaded _Into the Shadows_ a little while ago and am looking forward to that one!