Desert Isle Keeper
The Man That Got Away
Harper Allen’s The Man That Got Away is one of the most original debut romances I’ve ever come across, and one of my favorites. A time-travel romance with an unusual setting – 1930s Hollywood – it’s brimming over with creativity, excitement, emotion and a lot of heart. Most of all, it’s just a lot of fun.
Gabriel O’Shaughnessy is a private eye in Los Angeles, circa 1930. Hired to tail a mysterious blond starlet named Dana Torrence, he is paid a late-night visit by the lady in question, who demands he leave her alone. Their banter results in a kiss before she leaves his office. Right after, the sounds of gunfire echo from the street below. Gabe goes after her, only to find blood on the pavement, but no sign of the woman herself.
In 1998, Dana Smith is an assistant to movie producer Sebastian Hart. More than her boss, he’s her friend, the man who found her five years earlier, shot in the street in front of his office building. Neither of them have any idea where she came from, except that she was found wearing authentic 1930s clothing. One night while working in the office, she is shocked when a rift opens, pulling her into the same office some sixty years in the past.
It’s been five years since Gabe last saw Dana Torrence, but he hasn’t forgotten her one bit. Kind of hard to forget a woman you were accused of murdering. He wants answers. She doesn’t have any. Before long, they find themselves on the run from hired goons, maneuvering the tricky terrain of Hollywood in 1935 to unravel a mystery involving gangsters, politicians and studio heavyweights. Someone wants Dana dead for reasons she can’t remember. Together they make their way through Dana’s fragmented memories to the surprising truth behind it all.
Yes, it is an amnesia book. It’s also a book where the heroine travels more than sixty years into the future and back again for no good reason. What am I going to do, say the amnesia’s unrealistic? But then, I’m more willing to accept anything in a paranormal story, and the explanation for Dana’s memory loss, that her mind couldn’t handle the trauma of finding itself sixty years in the future, makes more sense than all those time travel books where the traveler has no trouble adjusting to a different time period.
The Man That Got Away features some of the usual problems of first-time writers. For instance, the opening chapter before Dana goes back to the 1930s is very slow, with a lot of exposition delivered in page after page of long paragraphs. But the story is also fresh and inventive in ways many veteran authors would never think of. It’s a giddy thrill ride that offers a spin on a real life infamous Hollywood murder mystery.
The plot seldom slows, as the characters race around the Los Angeles area, putting the pieces together on Dana’s past and the reason people are turning up dead all over town. The author offers a good sense of place, from the period tone she captures to the historical details sprinkled throughout. I liked that this wasn’t a story about a character adapting to a new time period, because the thirties are where Dana came from and where she belongs. That allows the author to bypass the usual scenes of adjustment without Dana’s ease seeming unrealistic, freeing up room in a story that already has a lot to cover in a brisk 251 pages. The mystery is one of the author’s best. It culminates in a surprise ending that could have come across as clichéd or offensive, but doesn’t because of the empathy Allen shows for the characters involved.
The book contains a number of memorable scenes and effective moments, like the one where Gabe realizes she really has traveled through time. The moment where Dana remembers her childhood is done perfectly with a series of quick snatches of dialogue from her youth that reveal all you need to know about how the Depression tore her family apart and how she came to Hollywood, all in less than a page and without heavy exposition. There’s a sequence in Chinatown featuring the love story between two minor characters that provides more tragedy and emotion in ten pages than most full-length novels can manage. And despite the fact that this is a very plot-driven book, the author still manages to strike a nice note with the main characters’ romance and give the sense that these two people are meant to be together.
After her first few books, Allen’s romances grew more serious and angst-filled, and while I still enjoy many of them, I do miss her earlier works like this that were so much fun. It’s fast, exciting and unexpected, filled with the pleasure of seeing where the author will take us next. Refreshingly different as both a time-travel story and a series romance, it’s a gem.