A Blues Singer to Redeem Him
The blurb for A Blues Singer to Redeem Him, promising a perilous interracial romance between the son of a Mafioso and a blues singer in a Jazz Age speakeasy amid the looming threat of the KKK, earned this title an instant high place on my TBR. Sadly, it failed to live up to my expectations in almost every way.
The novel opens on a chilling note, as our heroine, Evelyn Laroque, and her parents are fleeing from the Klan during the Tulsa Race Massacre. Alarm bells started ringing when, in the midst of what should be one of the most frightening situations ever presented in a romance novel, Evelyn somehow has time to reminisce about her seventeenth birthday party, her first date with a future dentist, how she and her family left Louisiana so her mother could successfully practice medicine, her brother’s move to Kansas City, and her dream to become a singer like her Aunt Shirleen. This is all important information, but putting it smack in the middle of the section where Evelyn and her family are literally running for their lives rings false and diminishes the urgency of their dire situation.
Five years later, in August 1926, Lorenzo De Luca, who, being an honorable hero wants nothing to do with the “family business” – is ordered by his Mafioso father to investigate – and exact revenge for – the murder of his cousin Vinny (please save your Joe Pesci jokes until after the review) and Vinny’s black fiancée by the KKK.
When we catch up with Evelyn, she’s in poor financial circumstances, but having no inclination to marry, decides to get a job as a blues singer in a Kansas City club.
Up until this point, the book is solidly in ‘okay’ territory. Clear motives drive the characters’ behaviors. Believable catalysts for action are tied together with mostly passable prose. But from here on in, it’s a downhill spiral in almost every conceivable regard. The trouble begins when Lorenzo has a sit-down with Simmens, a prominent member of the KKK – and our main villain – as part of his investigation efforts. Then we read the following:
“Now the KKK thought Lorenzo should be an active leader in the organization, to solidify the KKK’s influence in the city with backing from the mob.”
Cue the soundbite of a record being scratched backwards and then overlay it with the earsplitting, metal crushing, tire squealing sound of a car crash. This is 1926. The KKK hated Catholics and Italians, and there were many violent clashes between the mafia and the KKK. (A quick Google search will confirm this.) And yet, we as readers are supposed to believe that a Klansman in the 1920s – around the height of the organisation’s power – would have even considered courting the son of a Mafioso? Frankly, this is a sickening disregard for historical accuracy, and I wasn’t buying it.
It is also around this point that the quality of the prose, characterization, dialogue, and continuity crash and burn along with the plot and any remaining semblance of historical accuracy.
Evelyn and Lorenzo meet immediately after Lorenzo has a violent confrontation with Simmens – which doesn’t stop Simmens from roughly grabbing Evelyn and threatening her within earshot of the guy who just choked him. Lorenzo knocks him out cold, but Evelyn, being a typical HR heroine, accuses Lorenzo of being a “Neanderthal” for behaving in a manner he regards as chivalrous.
Shortly after this, Simmens’ KKK buddies burst into Lorenzo’s club with shotguns. Lorenzo tries to talk them down, but the bad guys aren’t having it, and things look pretty dire for our heroes. Thank goodness Lorenzo’s female childhood friend, Dred, zips around the club at the speed of light injecting all the bad guys with some kind of instant knockout drug in a scene I can only describe as Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch on steroids meets The Matrix. Yes, really.
Then, because that whole ridiculous sequence wasn’t awful enough, we get the introduction of an impoverished plot moppet caught stealing food from the club’s kitchen. Not only does Lorenzo let him get away with it, he asks Evelyn to help him put on some kind of fundraiser for the poor.
Is it really not enough to have a story about a jazz club owner falling for his beautiful, talented blues singer, and how they have to fight the Klan together because they’re both from hated minority groups? No, let’s throw in some charity work with a whiff of 21st century mores. While we’re at it, let’s add a jolly, accident-prone cook for cringey comic relief.
If you insist on reading further, be warned there is a surprisingly brutal attempted rape scene about a third into the story. Naturally, Lorenzo rescues Evelyn and nearly beats Simmens – who “has a thing for young Black women” – to death with his bare hands. Of course, this being a Harlequin romance, Evelyn stops Lorenzo from actually killing the dirtbag. To her credit, she stabs Simmens during the assault with the knife she always carries against her thigh. It’s nice to see a romance heroine who is neither a helpless screaming ninny nor a 21st century she-hulk warrior in the face of danger.
Through the next several chapters, everything you would expect to occur between our hero and heroine is pretty bland and genre-standard. There’s some sexual tension here, some family drama there, secondary characters doing secondary character things, but nothing worth noting for a while.
Then we hit a big ouch! moment that is worth mentioning. Things are getting a little steamy in Lorenzo’s apartment when Evelyn drops this bomb:
“I feel more comfortable here with you, a mobster, than I’ve felt with anyone in a long time.”
Lorenzo has already firmly established throughout the previous chapters that he is not a gangster, and the shroud of ongoing guilt by association because of his being born into a crime family is understandably a huge sore spot with him. Moreover, he bought his club with honest money that he earned through years of hard work. Evelyn knows all of this. So how does the hero react to the heroine’s thoughtless blow? The author tells us,
“It stung to hear her call him a mobster.”
But apparently the comment doesn’t sting enough to prevent Lorenzo from comforting Evelyn for her problems and then making out with her on the sofa. I guess he’s too horny to call out a blatant attack on his character.
On the subject of sex, the consent in this book is completely overdone. Constantly asking verbal permission to touch someone, grandstanding about how wrong it is for an employer and employee to get it on, apologizing for every little nothing thing, making sniveling excuses, and proclaiming amorous intentions in the driest manner possible is not sexy. I’m all for bedroom communication, but a flat, “I’m going to kiss you now,” from an overly cautious romance hero doesn’t exactly scream facciamo l’amore.
The characterization is as weak as the plot. Neither Lorenzo – living with the stain of a dark past – nor Evelyn – the spitfire who starts off with wealth, loses it in a unexpected twist of fate, insists she’s never getting married and finds instant success in her chosen career – are anything I haven’t read many times before. I admit there are some interesting tidbits about Lorenzo’s childhood and family life, and the brutal manner in which Evelyn loses almost everything – including her parents – elevates those clichés somewhat. If the writing were stronger, she could be a fantastic character.
As for the rest of the story, there’s the obligatory I’m-leaving-you-for-your-own-good third act drag. We get a second attempted rape scene because one apparently wasn’t enough. Several plot threads like the double murder of Vinny and his fiancée go completely unresolved, as does any mention of the future of Vinny’s four-year-old son. The moppet who inspires the charity event disappears from the narrative. The fundraiser comes and goes in a whirlwind, which is probably for the best. The supposedly climactic showdown with the KKK happens exactly in the manner you would expect. Then Lorenzo decides to give up bootlegging until prohibition ends because that’s the nauseatingly correct thing to do. In the meantime, he’s going to found a music company. By this point, I honestly didn’t care if he and Evelyn got their HEA or not.
Despite all the glaring issues in A Blues Singer to Redeem Him, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the story’s scant positives. First, Jackson writes decent cliffhangers. Second, I appreciate that she isn’t afraid to acknowledge moral ambiguities and complexities driven by residing in a particular time and place. For instance, there is a scene in which Evelyn rides in a segregated streetcar. While Evelyn doesn’t defend the deplorable practice of racial segregation, she does experience a few understandable moments of relief knowing that the white villain will not follow her into the black only section.
Overall, I see intermittent, faint glimmers of potential in Jackson’s work but not nearly enough to save this streetcar wreck. Only Jackson’s fleeting sparks of originality barely keep A Blues Singer to Redeem Him from receiving an F.
~ Nan De Plume