Desert Isle Keeper
Crooked Hearts begins exceptionally well, with a gorgeous step-back cover illustration. The two lovers are sexy, they’re good-looking, and they match their text descriptions pretty well. Best best of all they both look like they’re having fun. The step-back sets the tone for the book perfectly – this is a high-spirited, sexy romp; one look at the cover prepares you for the rollicking good time within.
Grace Russell meets Reuben Jones on the stagecoach to California. She’s dressed as Sister Mary Augustine, conning well-meaning marks out of charity money; he’s disguised as a blind Spanish aristocrat, watching for a chance to score. Reuben’s on to Grace right away: she’s so uninhibited in the presence of the “blind” man that she adjusts her skirt – and the pistol in her garter – in front of him. It takes Grace a while longer to catch on to Reuben, and she’s furious when she does. For one thing, there’s the embarrassing memory of how much he’s seen; for another, Reuben takes his time before reluctantly breaking character to rescue Grace from a Chinese gang who attack the stagecoach. Clutching a mysterious Ming artifact, they ride off, bickering, into the sunset, and on to their next adventure.
Grace accompanies Reuben to his San Francisco apartment, where she learns that Reuben has dozens of small cons running at all times, that he’s a wine connoisseur and collector, and that he’s urgently sought by a group of central-casting thugs (think the comedy-mobsters in Some Like It Hot) over the small matter of $4,500. Grace needs big money, too, lest the bank foreclose on her farm and her beloved con-artist uncle is in big trouble. Drawn together by necessity and mutual attraction, the two of them team up on scams that take them into post-Gold Rush casinos and the meanest streets of Chinatown.
In some ways, Crooked Hearts reads like Patricia Gaffney’s attempt to gently fracture the romance mold in as many ways as she can while still providing bang for the buck. Grace is a cheerful non-virgin and Reuben is as beta as they come. The sex scenes – and they are sexy – are played as much for laughs as for passion, and they’re mostly seen through Reuben’s eyes.
Reuben and Grace pace each other step by step, each keeping a wary eye on the other at all times. Crook to crook is a pairing I haven’t come across elsewhere: usually he’s a gentleman con artist and she’s a prim schoolmarm, or she’s an urchin pickpocket and he’s Baron Von Fusty. Reuben and Grace appreciate and admire each other’s skills from the beginning, even as they constantly scheme to get the better of the other. Part of what makes the chemistry between them incredibly sexy is that their competition makes them hyper-aware of each other. Reuben schemes to get Grace into his bed and Grace plots how to stay out of it, then regrets when she succeeds. They’re careful not to defeat the other too badly, however; they’re both having too much fun playing the game to ruin it by winning.
One of Reuben and Grace’s favorite games is a sweet and intriguing twist on the Big Secret plot. Reuben and Grace both have secret pasts, mostly because they prefer spinning melodramatic tragic histories to telling the truth. Instead of confronting the obvious falsehoods, they each help revise and polish the other’s stories, reminding each other of forgotten details, and gloss over inconsistencies. Honesty is a habit they’ve both long abandoned; it’s a sign of their growing trust when they try to learn it again.
As much as I love the book, the characterization probably isn’t for everybody. For romance heroes, Reuben and Grace are both quite immature, especially Reuben. Most heroes his age (25) have their own dukedoms or pirate ships; Reuben’s a prototype slacker. To me, this adds to the youthful spark of the book, but other readers may find him irritating. It helps that the epilogue is set seven years after the main events, and goes a long way to reassuring us that Reuben and Grace can eventually grow up and stay together. The secondary characters are all straight out of central casting, which some may find especially troublesome in the case of the lisping, Fu-Manchu-style villain. All of the villains are cartoonish, which is in keeping with the spirit of the book, but Mark Wing may still be a little much for some sensibilities.
All of the movie analogies in this review are no accident. Crooked Hearts has the breezy pace and zesty dialogue of the sort of intelligent, good-natured screwball comedy Hollywood hasn’t made successfully for over forty years. The formula is so old it’s fresh again. Minor quibbles aside, start to finish, it’s a pleasure to read.