Blue-Eyed Bandit by Stobie Piel was a difficult book to assign a letter grade to. I finally settled on a C, but parts of it are better than that. And parts of it are much worse.
Emily Morgan is a modern-day bookstore owner whose heart was broken by a former love. Cora and Adrian de Vargas, the time-traveling protagonists of Free Falling, enlist her aid to save the life of Darian Woodward, who was hanged as an outlaw in Tucson in 1870. Cora and Adrian convince Emily that Darian is/was a sweet, honorable, virginal man, and intrigued by this description, Emily agrees to travel back to 1870 via mystical whirlwind to save Darian from his fate.
When Emily encounters Darian, he appears to be a scruffy, gun-toting outlaw who leads a band of equally scruffy men. But soon she sees that he’s straight-laced and proper. He ignores her warning and heads for Tucson, determined to face General Clement Davis, who has besmirched his honor. In the process, Darian manages to shoot some Texas Rangers and to hold up a gold-filled stagecoach. His reputation as an outlaw is spreading far and wide.
Emily and Darian fall in love, and together they strive to defeat the bad guy, to keep Darian from being captured and hanged, and most importantly, to help him conquer the painful tragedy that haunts him. This part of the story is exciting and witty and sometimes wildly romantic. Emily is intelligent and funny, and though she’s spunky she never made me clench my teeth. The love scenes between her and the virginal Darian are tender and sexy, and Darian’s struggle to overcome his tormented past is moving. The plot of the novel builds to a poignant and very suspenseful climax. There is an overriding theme of the healing power of trust – between friends, lovers, and even strangers.
I liked Blue-Eyed Bandit so much, I’d really like to give it a solid recommendation. The beginning of the story prevents me from doing that. For the first 130 pages, the book tries and disastrously fails to be a slapstick comedy. Through this section, Darian is deeply, genuinely stupid. Piel tries to portray him as an innocent whose naivete leads him to inadvertently wreak havoc. Funny, yes? He comes across as dumber than a box of rocks. Not funny.
Darian insists that he is not a criminal, because he has honorable reasons for doing all the criminal things he does, which include stealing and killing and terrorizing people. When they reach Tucson, people flee in terror from the sight of him. Darian decides that it must be Sabbath and the townspeople are all headed for church. The fact that it’s Tuesday seems not to penetrate this logic. When Darian hears a ruckus in the local saloon, he and his men draw their weapons and head for the saloon to restore peace, where they shoot a gun out of a woman’s hands. Noticing that the sheriff is drunk, Darian decides he’s not fit to be a lawman and has his men seize him and lock him in his own jail. Looking at the petrified saloon patrons, Darian “wondered if the townsfolk were afraid of him. There seemed to be an unsubstantiated rumor circulating – that Darian and his men posed some sort of danger.” I so wanted to strangle him.
I like characters who take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Darian, at least in the “comedic” portion of the novel, isn’t intelligent enough to understand that his actions have consequences. His dangerous idiocy is especially frustrating because it’s completely inconsistent with the rest of the book. Darian is later revealed to be a sensitive lover, a talented military leader, and a clever schemer, which he couldn’t be if he were the moron we’re introduced to. Authors: you can’t transform Jerry Lewis into Cary Grant in the middle of the book!
If you can bear it, endure the first 130 pages of Blue-Eyed Bandit, and you’ll find yourself reading a lovely romance. And I hope that in her next book, Ms. Piel strives to match the emotional intensity and sweeping romance that characterize the second two-thirds of this book.