Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Suspenseful Equality: Carolyn Crane's OFF THE EDGE

I've read romantic suspense novels with police officers, detectives, and FBI agents as heroes. With army officers, Navy SEALS, and members of various military special ops groups. Even with spies, thieves, and the occasional assassin. But until last week, when I picked up the second book in Carolyn Crane's Undercover Associates series, I'd never come across a work of romantic suspense featuring an academic in the leading male role.

Or at least, a former academic. American Dr. Peter Maxwell was once happy to spend his days analyzing language, breaking words into smaller sound components, spending "entire months studying the way different people pronounced a dipthong like the ow in low, and draw all kinds of conclusions about what that meant" (20). But after his family and his fiancee are killed during an attack on a Mexican train, Peter turns his academic skills to tracking the terrorists responsible. So successful does his investigation via linguistics prove that he's recruited by a secret cabal, The Associates, a private group devoted to "keeping the balance of power intact," "keeping World War Three from happening," and "stopping the most despicable crimes" (124). After years of training, Peter Maxwell has transformed himself in Macmillan, one of the smartest, as well as the most dangerous, members of the Associates team.

If Henry Higgins had turned to spying...
For his latest mission, Macmillan has come to Bangkok in the guise of a visiting professor, but really to keep a disturbingly advanced remote control drone, a weapon powerful enough to take out an entire airport, and precise enough to target a single man on a crowded street, from falling into criminal hands. If he could only get close enough to hear the conversations of arms dealers who have gathered in a famous Bangkok hotel, he'd be able to use his linguistic analysis skills to hone in on the man who stole the weapon, and shut him down before he can auction off the weapon to the highest bidder. When he realizes that the hotel's lounge singer, a woman whose sentimentally irritating songs have been pissing him off all night, has been recording her set, her equipment right next to the arms dealers, Macmillan knows that seduction and larceny are next on his agenda.

Laney Lancaster, like Macmillan, has come to Bangkok for motives other than what appear on the surface. Having played a vital role in sending her gangster husband to jail, Laney fled the States to avoid being captured by men loyal to her ex. Hiding in plain sight in Thailand, Laney seems a damsel custom-fitted for being rescued from distress.

But Laney, like Macmillan, is far from the typical romantic suspense heroine. Though the opening scene shows her fleeing and hiding after spotting a man she believes worked for her husband, Laney is determined to protect herself, determined never to allow the abusive Rolly to harm or control her ever again. To never allow another man to tell her want she wants, to make her feel small, to turn her into a victim. Her skills with language, as well as her newfound skills with a gun, will make sure of it.

Macmillan may think he's the one in control during their seduction, but Laney's way with language proves just as disarming as his own. For Laney, poetic language is "about connecting with people, not hurting them or isolating them [as her husband uses it]. The dusty old poets Laney so loved—Keats, Byron—they helped her feel less alone, as though she was linking with another soul across time. That was poetry" (9). Macmillan uses language against others, to hide and deceive, to hunt and track, to entice and seduce. But Laney uses language to forge connection, to delve beyond the commonplaces, to flush out the truth. To pull pieces of the old Peter out of Macmillan, pieces he'd long imagined dead: "Peter hadn't lost parts of himself in the train bombing. He'd gained parts of himself. He was all of these things. Lover. Fighter. Scholar. Hunter. Killer."

Peter, like most romantic suspense heroes, feels protective towards Laney, and takes his fair share of punches, insults, and bullets on her behalf (and on behalf of the mission). But it's her courage that he most admires, not her frailty: the courage to forge meaningful connections with others, even after the abuse she suffered from her former husband; the courage to fight with him, to tell him what he doesn't want to hear; the courage to keep hope alive. "That was Laney. A warrior for the people she cared about" (215).

Unlike in much romantic suspense, the emotional thrill of this book doesn't stem primarily from watching its heroine be placed in danger. Instead it's from the danger that both Peter and Laney face together. And from the emotional vulnerability each must risk for the other, if their mission is to succeed. For it will be their ability to work together, rather than Peter's ability to swoop in and rescue, that will bring these two "word nerds" to a fittingly happy, and feminist, ending.

Photo credits:
Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins: Wikimedia
Word Nerd: Melville House

Off the Edge
(Associates #2)
self-published by Carolyn Crane


  1. I recently read this and liked it a lot, too. I had some issues though, and they were mainly with Laney. Peter made sense to me. His actions made sense, and his motivations made sense. Laney was more unbelievable to me. Or maybe I was annoyed because I saw her making bad decisions a lot. Bad decision #1: Marrying Rolly. Bad decision #2: [Um, trying not to spoil, but regarding her circumstances in Bangkok]. Bad decision #3: Not leaving when Peter told her to. I didn't see it as a sign of strength but of weakness in her character. Peter kept trying to tell me she was awesome and cared about her friends etc., but I couldn't get past that she should have gotten out when she could. It was more of the self-destructive behavior that got her into these problems in the first place. Now granted, of course it all worked out because hey, HEA.

    I loved all the talk about language, from the linguistic standpoint and the poetry standpoint. That was a lot of fun.

    1. Wendy:

      I thought it was interesting that Laney's bad decisions stemmed directly from what the text sets forth as her strength: her willingness to make connections with others. Yes, this penchant leads her to some poor choices, but it also leads her to connect with Peter, to force him back to a truer, fuller sense of who he is as a person.

      Yes, bad decision #2 irked me, too, but because it was kind of necessary for the plot, I gave it a pass. I didn't find #3 a bad decision, as you did, but rather a strength; Peter keeps wanting to play into typical romance suspense stereotypes, the self-sacrificing stuff, but Laney refuses.

      As for #1 -- I think the text did a good job of explaining how Laney's background had set her up to be taken with a man such as Rollo. And describing how women don't make a single choice to allow themselves to be abused, but how a long series of accepting small slights leads to an acceptance of much larger ones.

  2. I love a recommendation for a romantic suspense that doesn't rely on stereotype. The genre appeals to me, but usually the heroines are don't do anything to further the plot other than being a victim (while vociferously proclaiming to themselves and others "I am not a victim!").


    1. Will be interested to hear what you think of it, Eliza, if you get a chance to give it a read...

  3. Intrigued, I read both the reviewed book and the first book in this series. I’ll read book #3 because the second book in the series was better than the first, so the author could be going somewhere interesting. But I’m wary, see point #3. Sorry for the long comment.
    1. One trope I find tiresome in rom suspense is that evil people aren’t just evil by arms dealing, drug dealing, or even killing people. They all have to abuse and objectify women, too. I don’t enjoy anvils falling on my head, particularly penis-shaped ones. The villain from book #1 was so melodramatic I went from being disgusted to bored in a few pages, and skimmed over his lecherous parties and torturing ways. 80% of it didn’t move the plot. We get it. Evil. Twirling mustache. Moving on.
    2. I fell in love with book #2, which was reviewed here, by the last act. I was slow to warm up because the heroine seemed TSTL (too stupid to live) via Bad Decision #2. But you know, by the end, I was hooked. I liked the word play, the hero’s story, how the hero/heroine worked together, and that the heroine made her own decisions. The author did a great job of weaving the theme of connection with the romance and Monster of the Week plot.
    3. When I read romantic suspense I zero in on the moral code of the author’s world, because in romantic suspense the plot always involves righting a wrong. Some ethical stances by the good guys – what I’ll call White Hats - vary by author; some are so universal they have become cliché. (See above: all criminals beat their girlfriends or merely objectify and use women. All.). The corollary to this, of course, is that White Hats universally abhor violence against women. They don’t tolerate it, even in interests of killing the Monster of the Week. One interesting (troubling?) thing about this series is that the White Hals are very willing to sacrifice women in the interest of World Peace, unless they fall in love with them, in which case these women are moved from the “pawn” pile to the “protected” pile. While I like heroes with a little gray, Dax’s ethics at some level just seemed non-existent or hypocritical. I’m not sure how I feel about certain people being more worthy of being saved over others. In book #1, the hero keeps justifying the fact that he’s placed the heroine in serious danger because she’s a thief and therefore expendable. Whew, good thing she became his girlfriend! And same thing to a certain degree with book #1. Of course a guy is going to do anything to save the woman he loves. That’s not heroic.

    1. Yes, I'm interested to see how the Associates' "code" plays out over the course of the series. Especially given that the second in command is a woman. Both she and the leader take the "some people are expendable" moral line; is it a line the series as a whole will embrace, or will it be shown to be morally indefensible by the series' end?

  4. Yay! This is on my Kindle...moving it up on my TBR list...thanks!