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A Guest Pandora’s Box: Carolyn Crane’s Against the Dark

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



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