Contemporary Pitfalls: Whisper of Warning

Courtney Glass's slimy ex won't leave her alone.  She gets message after message from him, begging her to meet him.  Once she even gives in, only to stand him up - what can I say, she's the vengeful sort.  But that didn't stem the flow of texts and emails, which arrived with increasing urgency.  Finally she agrees to meet him again, but when he gets out of Porsche and into her broke-down Buick, almost the first words out of his mouth are these: "I don't have time for this shit.  This is bordering on harassment."

Before Courtney even has time to feel puzzled by this, a ski-masked man gets into the back seat of the Buick, brandishing a gun.  He collects their phones before grabbing her hand, wrapping her fingers around the trigger, and blowing a hole in her spluttering, terrified ex.

It might very well seem that the man in the ski mask is just treating Courtney to a bit of Tarantinoesque revenge fantasy. But, wretch that she is, she is oddly ungrateful for the gift.  She thanks him with a faceful of mace, and then bolts.

Now, of course, with her prints all over the gun and the gunpowder residue all over her body, Courtney becomes the prime suspect in her ex's murder, even before it becomes clear that she and the (married) deceased had a nasty break-up and, oh yeah, the gun is registered in her name.  Rookie cop and military vet Will Hodges lands this as his first homicide case, and, in the way of the million detectives who preceded him in this genre of romance, begins to feel oddly protective - wait, no, attracted - to his prime suspect, dammit. This is really going to fuck up his career.

Now, I want to admit up front that I have a bit of a problem being swept away by contemporary romances.  There are a bunch of romance conventions that seem to me to be accounted for ideologically (or even to raise interesting ethical questions) in historical fiction that seem deeply troubling in relationships set in our time.  Usually these have to do with issues of power and control between men and women.  The storied "alpha hero" (a term Laura Vivanco has been interrogating recently at Teach Me Tonight) - no matter how bolstered his gruff control-freakery is with a back-story involving theatres of war and years wearing a badge - rubs me the wrong way in an era and culture of full voting and property rights for women, not to mention the widespread belief in every individual's right to self-actualization.  The deferral of consummation also often strikes me as a convention which has been anachronistically imported from historical fiction - although some authors justify this reticence cleverly and plausibly and some reject it outright. (This may, on a side note, be one of the reasons why I preferred Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation to her sprightly Bet Me, although I enjoyed them both.)  And don't even get me started on the rage and anxiety it evokes in me when there is no mention of condoms in a post-AIDS era romance.  I'm looking at you, Black Ice, though you gripped me in a zombielike trance till you were finished with me.


But I digress.  Laura Griffin avoids all of these pitfalls of the contemporary in Whisper of Warning, including the perilous anti-feminism of the historically displaced alpha hero.  But what unnerved me in the end was the inverse of the alpha hero dilemma, which in my limited experience is more common in contemporaries, although not unknown in historicals - the featherweight heroine.

Courtney occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between that classic chicklit standard - the Bridget Jones (obsessed with her appearance, moving haplessly but nevertheless wittily through the fashionable life of the paradoxically beloved social outcast) - and the saucy upstart heroine of historical fiction who is so keen on been quirky that she can't seem to keep herself from falling into murderous trap after murderous trap.  Like Bridget, Courtney is obsessed with details of surface - she is a stylist, and keenly aware of her hair and makeup at every moment of danger or tension.  But she is too perfect - too inherently, confidently sexy - for this surface obsession to be appealing.  So she combines a sort of beach-read frivolity with one of my most hated traits of a spunky historical heroine: independence of spirit that is actually a burden rather than a help to the hero and their quest to overcome external obstacles.

In part because her character never espouses any interests that would give me confidence in her investigative abilities, Courtney's conviction that she is better at solving the violent mysteries surrounding her than Will Hodges (a trained detective) filled me with unease.  The bumbling quality of her investigations, combined with the fact that she is in serious, obvious jeopardy through the entire novel, began to transform this unease into irritation, and no amount of dwelling on the corruption of the police force or their misguided certainty that she was their killer managed to soothe this annoyance.  Consider this exchange, between Will and Courtney:
"I thought I told you to stay at your sister's."

"I'm not under house arrest.  I can go wherever I want."

"Hey, did it ever occur to you that you're not investigating the case?  The police are?  And maybe it's not smart to run around town asking questions like you're Nancy Drew?"

She opened up a little makeup mirror and reapplied her lipstick.  Her mouth was fire engine red tonight.  But he should think of it as a Stop sign.

She finished with the lipstick and shoved it back in her purse.  "Maybe if you guys would solve the case, I wouldn't have to investigate for you.  And maybe you should be grateful I 'm helping you instead of complaining."
ARRGH! (I thought), the smug tone of this last makes me wish Will well rid of her.  Here he is, running around the city, using all his training to help and protect her, and not only does she repeatedly complicate matters and undermine both her safety and the legal case for her innocence, but she is proud of her incompetence! Wait, no.  Wait.  What am I saying?  That she should just shut up and wait at home for the men to solve her problem for her?  No, wait.  Surely.... ARGGH!

There is something really insidious to me about a heroine who confuses unpredictable and ill-conceived lashing-out with liberty and self-actualization, because it invites this very pattern of sympathies from the reader.  Rather than underscoring that the hero and heroine each bring strengths to their mutual task, and that each should have authority and control over their own areas of expertise, it fosters dismay that the heroine is too shortsighted to recognize her strengths and limitations.  I begin to think that it is the hero's job to contain her and her, well, fallout.  And that is a feminist fail, in my book.

Thus, although Courtney does have moments of strength in the course of the novel, and her investigations do open up new pathways for them to explore, the panoply of bad, panicked choices overwhelms these virtues.  My sense that her lack of trust in Will is justified begins to deteriorate, and then her distrust just becomes a plot device for keeping them apart, as well as a sign of how limited her understanding of the situation is.  Furthermore, her secrecy leads to at least one moment of profound creepiness in his apartment:
"Have you eaten? she asked, breezing into the kitchen.

"Time out.  How'd you get in here?"

"Your landlady downstairs." She pulled open the oven and took out a small white carton.  "You like kung pao chicken?"

"My landlord let you in here?"

"Now, before you get pissed, let me just say that she's a sweet old lady."  She removed several more cartons from the oven and lined them up on the counter.  "I told her it was our anniversary and I was here to surprise you." [...]

He stared down at her, both annoyed and impressed.  He was annoyed that she was here, in his kitchen, all wet and flirty.  He was impressed that she'd tracked down his address.

"How'd you find out where I live?"

Her smile widened.  "Now that was the hard part.  You're not listed."

"I know."

"I had to hire a detective."

"Seriously, how'd you find me?"
"Seriously, you'll never know."
Rather than striking a sexy, bantery sort of tone, this exchange had the ring of obsessive intrusion into his privacy and free will.  He has been putting her off for some time with good reason.  If she needs his comfort or help (and she does at this point, she really does), the non-creepy way to deal with that is transparency - tell him you were nearly killed that day! Don't just wait for him to stumble obnoxiously onto the fact while you dart about his kitchen, filled with bubbles and glee!

Instead, I was reminded of the first episode of the brilliant Coupling (British version), in which slightly-psychotic Jane proves herself to be "unflushable."   When her boyfriend tries to dump her, she just doesn't accept the dumping. (This has always been a tempting argument for me, great believer that I am that relationships are emotional contracts between two parties with free will, but it must be acknowledged that the Jane path still denies one party that liberty of choice.)  After months of this, he dumps her via answering machine, and goes off for dinner with another woman.  But guess who shows up at the dinner?
Steve: "How did you find me here?"

Jane: "The usual."

Steve: "Oh, right, so: you phoned my flat, found I wasn't there, so then you phoned all the local taxi companies and found out which had picked me up and where I'd gone, and then you phoned all the local restaurants and found out which one had my booking?"

Jane, affectionately: "Well, if I didn't do that, how would we ever see each other?  Remember the time I gave you such a fright you almost fainted? Where was that?"

Steve, with resignation: "Prague."
So Courtney got under my skin, and not, evidently, in the same way she did Will's.   Because the culmination of the plot, the HEA, was the final straw that broke the back of my patience with this couple. (Skip on by if you are not looking for a spoiler.) After barely escaping the peril that threatens them, and narrowly proving her innocence of slimy ex's murder, Courtney settles down to get to know Will - to see if she can come to trust him. He's behaving a bit oddly, she thinks.  A bit withdrawn.  Being the secretive one in the romance for a change.  Where is he taking her?
Unless this wasn't an informal meeting.  What if this was some kind of setup?  Cernak was here.  Maybe he wanted to arrest her.  Maybe they'd found some new evidence, something new to charge her with.
Of course, he is actually taking her suspicious self to get (surprise!) their marriage license.

Sycorax's first rule of modern marriage: if you are wondering whether your beloved is giving you up to the Man, then it is probably too early to be applying for the marriage license.  But who am I to judge?

The reader, I guess.  The rush to the altar felt like a convention of HEAs that had been imported from another era, an era in which loving, trusting couples were more often made after the wedding than before.  Thus the historicals I often love best are the ones about how married couples grow into love with one another, despite the obstacles of everyday life, and the contemporaries I love best are those in which the hero and heroine recognize that it is after the tumult of conflict that they can get to know each other well enough to get married.

(Come back to me now, ye spoiler-averse.)

The fact that I wasn't enamored of the heroine is not to say that I didn't find much to enjoy about the novel and admire about Laura Griffin, who, I have to say, writes with a smooth, engrossing simplicity that I envy - deeply.  Images like these made me laugh out loud:
She glanced over.  The guy beside her had been eyeing her for fifteen minutes and evidently thought he'd found an opening. "Oh yeah?" She smiled at him, trying to guesstimate how much gel he must have used to get his hair to look like an otter's.
In the joy of the otter, I even forgot how much I normally hate the word "guesstimate" - D and I have argued at length about whether it actually has a meaning distinct from estimate's.  In fact, I was compelled by Griffin's writing and plotting to the extent that I am eager to find out what a different heroine would look like in her work.  So I will definitely be seeking out more of her novels.

But what say you?  Am I suffering from insufferable contemporary bigotry?

Whisper of Warning (2009)
Laura Griffin