When Ms. Roberts first wrote Brazen Virtue and its prequel Sacred Sins in the late 80’s, she was getting in on the ground floor of a new romance trend. Perhaps if a study were made, she could even be credited with starting the trend. During the 80’s, romantic suspense existed but it was generally in the gothic mode. Young woman comes to mysterious manor, is attracted to the brooding owner/nephew of owner/cousin who she suspects of being the villain for most of the book, and in the last pages declares her love after he rescues her from the true villain. It was only in the late eighties and nineties that the subgenre became more of an amalgam between mysteries and romance. It may still have a few too many of what I call the “Woman in Jeopardy” books but the women have become more proactive in their behavior and the balance between mystery and romance is generally more evenhanded. Generally, but not always.
You’re probably scratching your head and wondering what this mini-treatise has to do with the price of tea in china, or the review of Brazen Virtue? While Nora Roberts has amply demonstrated her ability to combine the two genres with her In Death books, it’s evident in this earlier work that she had to fine-tune that ability.
The serial killer in this book is probably a good example of how the killers facing Eve Dallas started out. He’s a teenage boy eavesdropping on phone sex calls and fantasizing about the women. He is especially fascinated by Desiree. Desiree is the nom de phone of Kathleen Breezewood, a divorced Catholic schoolteacher who’s attempting to make a little extra money by working the phones and is the sister of crime writer Grace McCabe.
Grace has come to visit Kathleen in the hopes of strengthening their relationship. As sisters they couldn’t be more different; Kathleen’s cool and orderly, Grace is friendly and disorganized. Kathleen has no friends, but Grace instantly befriends the handsome guy next door, Detective Ed Jackson. Because of their differences the two have never been close. Grace is hoping to change that. She’s convinced that Kathleen must still be grieving over the demise of her marriage and the loss of custody of her son. But just as she’s beginning to make inroads on their relationship, Kathleen is killed. There’s no real mystery here since the reader is told very early on the name of the killer. This becomes something of a pattern in the book. The reader is told too many things in short descriptive bursts and not shown nearly enough. Jerald is the teenage son of a powerful man, he does drugs (cocaine and marijuana), he’s a computer geek who has found a way to hack into the phone sex calls…oh yeah, and he’s mad. It says so right on page 35. That’s a neat, pointed description but the author never delves deeper. Why is this kid so screwed up?
This kind of character snapshot is used all too frequently. Ed admires Grace’s brain but he’s not used to confident women. He’s a supporter of the ERA (this was written in the 80’s). He comes from a single parent household, raised by his mother who worked hard and wants a wife he’ll take care of. All of this is told to the reader in a page then hardly referred to again. Had Roberts shown the conflict Ed might have in reconciling his image of the ideal companion with the real, live Grace, that would have made for interesting reading.
The romance benefits from the author’s expertise. Grace and Ed sparkle as a couple. Though their relationship is accelerated by the needs of a book that has both mystery and romance, it seems very real. Their dialogue is one of the strongest elements of the book. The running battle between Grace’s love of junkfood and Ed’s health nuttiness makes for some much needed humor in a book with a very serious topic. Though Grace can be prickly and a little arrogant it fits with who she’s supposed to be and compliments Ed’s easygoing personality.
I first read this book 13 years ago when it came out as a paperback. At the time I thought it was exciting to read a book that was melding two of my favorite genres, mystery and romance. But though I was intrigued by the combination, I think my reaction then must have been similar since I haven’t had the urge to reread it until now. I’m still glad that Nora Roberts chose to delve into a new area.
That being said, the paperbacks are scarce, but unless you’re someone who avidly collects Roberts or you’re just dying to read her suspense beginnings, you can probably wait until this one is re-released as a paperback.