Desert Isle Keeper
What the Lady Wants
It seems to be commonly accepted among most romance readers that an author’s single-title books are better than any category romances she may have written. So it may sound absurd (or just like my typical foolishness) when I say I prefer just about all of Jennifer Crusie’s series books over her longer single-titles. That’s especially true for one of my very favorite of her books – What the Lady Wants, originally published as Harlequin Temptation #544 in 1995. It may have been a short series romance, but it’s also much more than that.
What Mae Sullivan wants is the dumbest private investigator she can find. She needs to locate her recently deceased uncle’s missing diary, and she figures that by claiming his killer must have taken it, she can con a P.I. into tracking it down for her. She just needs a detective dumb enough to find the diary without figuring out there was no murder.
What she finds is Mitch Peatwick, a stockbroker temporarily playing detective because of a bet with a colleague. The minute Mae walks into his office, he knows she’s trouble. He still can’t resist getting drawn into her case. Soon he’s facing off with her eccentric relatives, unraveling a mystery that’s trickier and more dangerous than even Mae knows, and falling for the wannabe femme fatale who has a way of keeping him on his toes.
In the recent Favorites By Author polling, What the Lady Wants didn’t even make the top twelve for Crusie, a rather dubious achievement when the author only has fourteen book-length works to her name. I suspect one reason it may be less loved than many of Crusie’s books is that the emphasis is not on the romance. There is a love story here, and a good one at that, but there’s simply so much going on in this book that it’s not the driving force and is sometimes overshadowed, something perhaps more keenly felt in a short book than a longer one. Personally, the abundance of story, even at cost to the romance, is exactly what I love about it. It’s not simply a great romance novel, but so much more. It transcends genre. This is a superb short novel, period.
The original series release of the book clocked in at a mere 218 pages (this MIRA reissue blew up the margins to push it to 250), yet it feels much longer than that…and in a good way. In the recent years, I’ve read numerous Blazes and Intrigues, Intimate Moments and Superromances, all of which are ostensibly longer books than this one, but seem minuscule in comparison. The difference is that while most series romance (and increasingly so) seem content to offer a bare minimum of story – a few characters, a simple straightforward plotline – this one is bursting at the seams with character, mystery, humor and heart. It may be a short book, but it has a depth of imagination to rival any single-title. The plot is complex and well-conceived, and Crusie provides a large cast of characters with a dozen clearly defined personalities that leap off the page, right down to Mae’s dog, Bob.
As is to be expected from this author, this is a dialogue-driven tale that moves at lightning speed and is riotously funny. From the very first scene between Mae and Mitch, the banter is razor sharp.
“You don’t look thirty-four.”
“That’s because I’m not married.” Mae’s smile felt as if it were set in concrete. “Marriage tends to age a woman.”
“Doesn’t do much for a man either.”
“Actually it does. Married men live longer than single men.”
“It just seems longer.”
Most memorable is the conversation between Mae and Mitch that kicks off Chapter Four on men’s inability to commit, one of Crusie’s all-time classic scenes that stands up next to anything else she’s ever written.
But the story isn’t just funny. Besides the interesting and well-executed mystery, the delightful riff on detective stories, and the vivid supporting characters, it also has that great romance, one between two wonderful people who seem to delight in each other’s company. The love story may have to share space with everything else happening in this book, but when two people are so obviously perfect for one another and every encounter sings with joyous chemistry, it’s more than enough to satisfy me. It’s also has just the right amount of feeling and heart. The moment when Mae tells Mitch exactly why she doesn’t believe her gangster uncle could ever hurt anyone is more moving and emotional than anything in the much-hyped Bet Me. It puts a lump in my throat every time I read the book.
Speaking of Bet Me, I know I’m one of the very few people in the world who didn’t love that book. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for a meal. Bet Me was just dessert. Funny, yes. Romantic, yes. But that was pretty much all, and it was ultimately too much of a good thing. What the Lady Wants is a meal. It may be a smaller meal, but when everything on the table is so rich and so filling, sometimes the smaller portions work better to allow the palate the opportunity to savor every bite, rather than overloading the senses and turning off the taste buds after a while. That’s precisely why this book works for me. It has everything, it has it in just the right amounts, and it’s one I savor every time.