Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run: a comedic, gambler-ific western romance that should have been fantastic
The Guy: Reuben Jones, veteran confidence man, wisecracker, card sharp. Always on the move, he’s a gambler with a million disguises, a secret yearning for home and family, and a crippling fear of knives.
The Girl: Grace Russell, bold, scrappy con artist who can charm dollars out of wallets and into her pockets a million different ways, yet elude surrendering her virtue or her heart.
Brought To You By: Patricia Gaffney in Crooked Hearts, Signet 2001 (originally published 1994).
From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads:
THE CON MAN
Reuben Jones walks on the wrong side of the law — a card shark, a master of deception, a man who long ago buried the truth of his life so deep that no one would ever find it…
Grace Russell has had to learn a few tricks herself in order to hold on to the crumbling California vineyard that is the only thing in the world she can call her own…
When Grace meets Reuben she’s dressed as a pious Catholic nun; he’s posing as a blind Spanish aristocrat. But he gets an eyeful when the pretty sister lifts her skirts to adjust the little silver derringer strapped to her thigh … So begins this sexy, rollicking ride through the gambling halls and sinful streets of 1880s San Francisco, where two “crooked hearts” discover that love is the most dangerous — and delicious — game of all.
The Setting: The multicultural California coast in the 1880’s; Monterey, San Francisco, the Russian River valley.
The Tropes: Hero who Reforms his Conniving Ways; Heroine who Reforms her Conniving Ways; Heroine Clueless that Hero Thinks She’s Married; Partners in Crime; Sham Wedding as Part of Long Con; Stagecoach Robbery; You Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em; Captive Held in Gambling/Opium Den; Mysterious Chinese Villain.
“Sister Mary Augustine’s little silver derringer was cutting into her thigh.” The first line was a dead giveaway. This book does NOT have a pokerface. Right away I knew it would be funny, and not to take it too seriously. The first chapters are utterly captivating. Grace and Reuben are extremely likeable, their conversations are hilarious, and it’s strangely refreshing, and rare to read a romance where hero and heroine are both Actual Criminals in need of reform.
In spite of the various dangerous and seedy places the couple finds themselves, this novel isn’t dark and it’s easy to root for the criminals in their various escapades. They’re usually of course up against other criminals who are much worse, and it’s clear that while they are thieves on the run from the law, they recoil from violence.
Reuben is an unusual hero; he’s described as powerful but he’s somehow much less physical than Grace. He’s not especially moody, and only moderately introspective. I haven’t read enough of Patricia Gaffney’s romances to know whether he is an atypical Gaffney hero or not (more about this later) but like the novel itself, he’s unusually blithe for a HistRom hero.
He’s not a badass — he rarely uses his strength to fight and only barely manages to knock out a villain bent on harming — and gang-raping –Grace at one point. Reuben’s badassery is that of the elegant mind game and of witty banter; he’s physically appealing but not physically intimidating. He’s so good at playing out a long con, where patience, control, and the ability to amuse and distract are the skills in his arsenal. But he seems almost passive when the fur is flying and people – even Grace who has become firmly established as the object of his desire – are in danger. It’s hard to make a man who fleeces people, and runs rather than stand and fight (or face consequences), appealing and sexy, but somehow Gaffney manages to pull it off and I quite liked him.
Grace is equally appealing, and more of a badass in the customary ways: she knows her way around her firearms and she comes up with the bravura self-sacrificing move that saves the day at the end of the long con game. It’s all a bit of a romp, nicely infused with a strong feel for historical California and the early days of the wine industry there. So. If you’ve managed to read this far (Thank You!), you may be wondering why I said it should have been fantastic.
This is clearly the work of a gifted writer with a deft hand at historical fiction, character-driven romance, and funny dialogue. But then there are the parts that are so clumsy and so awfully NOT funny. The terribly stereotyped villain, an opium-importing Chinese immigrant who runs a whorehouse and 19th century equivalent of a crack house. The horrible – and distracting – use of eye dialect to render the villain’s speech, along with that of Ah You, the ridiculously Confucian, epigrammatic, loyal house servant whose “ancient Chinese wisdom” pushes Grace and Reuben to acknowledge their destiny as man and wife. And – AH YOU?!? In a romance novel? Ahh, you! Seriously. Unnecessarily. Bad.
Also, I had a bad reaction when Reuben’s suppressed childhood history was revealed and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to have had this particular background. I will endeavor to avoid going further into spoiler territory (except perhaps below in Comments), but between Reuben’s “secret” and the strangeness of his profession for a romance hero – he’s an avaricious pyramid schemer among other things – I am again left wondering at the lack of judgment on the part of both author and publisher with regard to ethnic and racial stereotyping. Unless I am just being dense – maybe for some readers this is all part of a spoof-y western quality a la Blazing Saddles, all broad humor and crass stereotypes?? If that’s so, it just didn’t work for me. It’s too sentimental to work as a spoof, especially in the case of the slow reveal of Reuben’s sad history, which, for me, just dragged down the story — he was interesting and vivid enough without it.
I hesitate to draw any comparisons to the only other Gaffney novel I’ve read, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to adequately address it. For one thing, I was unable to finish To Have and To Hold, which I had with me on vacation last month. For another, THatH has been the subject of intense and incredibly rich discussion in romance bloggery in recent months, with Liz’s discussion here at Something More offering both a lengthy and wonderful review as well as numerous illuminating contributions in the Comments, and links to the best of other reviews and discussions. It’s probably a big mistake to even bring up this immensely controversial and widely discussed book.
But I admit I am just stumped by Patricia Gaffney. I read a lot of romance in the 90’s but hadn’t read the Wyckerley novels or any of her other romances. I first thought about reading To Love and To Cherish when I posted a review of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green romance with a vicar for a hero (A Notorious Countess Confesses) and posed the question of whether a clergyman can be made into an appealing badass hero. Nicola from Alpha Heroes suggested looking at Christy, and I soon discovered that many other readers were looking at the Wyckerleys. Gaffney seemed to be everywhere this summer. Redemption and rape, cruelty and strength, interiority and connection — since I’ve returned home with THatH half-finished, I’ve schooled myself by catching up on the rich and challenging discussions that have taken place online recently around this unusual book. At the same time, I decided to give Gaffney another try, and I had Crooked Hearts on my TBR shelf along with Thief of Hearts and (still unread) TLatC.
What a relief it was to settle into a story that was clearly so different from Rachel and Sebastian’s tortured tale. The unusual setting and the humor drew me in right away. They meet on a stagecoach and it’s so clearly a partnership of equals. But then the disconnect started to distract me, even as I was enjoying Grace and Reuben’s various capers and escapades. Not only does Crooked Hearts lack the dark grimness of To Have and to Hold, but it also lacks the power and complexity. This in itself had me scratching my head because the difference goes deeper than the setting and tone. The two books are so vastly different I just couldn’t stop over-thinking every point of contrast. (If anyone’s read both and wants to argue they share some deep connections, I’d love to hear it!)
True, I did not (yet?) finish THatH — I was unable to keep reading when I ran up against the worst of Sebastian’s humiliating treatment of Rachel. But this probably had something to do with being far from home and in need of a comfort read (my bad for even bringing it with me – I was supposed to only be reading road romances!). I was deeply impressed by the writing itself, with its unsparing and multi-layered depiction of both characters’ inner lives.
In contrast, in place of raw and unsettlingly ambiguous elements of inequality, abuse of power, humiliation, and rape, Crooked Hearts serves up lighthearted criminal capers that should have been pure fun, with a side order of distraction and disappointment in the form of casual racism that doesn’t ring true as satire. Somehow it’s all just not adding up for me — I am purely stumped by my forays into the crooked, curious, oddly challenging and uncomfortable romances of Patricia Gaffney.
I’d love to hear from others who’ve read any of Gaffney’s “lighter” western romances. There are some others set in 1890’s America with equally improbable storylines, that seem to have found favor with plenty of Goodreads reviewers, but I get nervous about these when I see that there are two such books where either the hero or the heroine is a mute. (Wild at Heart, Sweet Everlasting). Talk about an unequal power dynamic rife with risk for stereotyping of characters with disability. I think I may need to steer clear, but I would love to be persuaded otherwise, since Gaffney is so clearly a writer of depth and skill.
Finally, I can’t conclude without confessing how hard It’s been hard to get the Kenny Rogers lyrics out of my head while I’ve been thinking about Crooked Hearts. The Gambler is one of those big-sky songs that can sort of morph to fit almost any situation — perhaps even my take on the mixed bag of Patricia Gaffney’s wild west romance: Now every gambler knows that the secret to surviving / Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep / ‘Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser / [And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.] Crooked Hearts is both a winner and a loser – and maybe the best that I can hope for is to read something else tonight that totally takes my mind off of these long and winding musings!
Crooked Hearts is available in the usual formats and places. I purchased it at my local used paperback shop.
I don’t know if I can take any more Gaffney … but gosh, I enjoyed reading this review. So light and fun!
I know, I know – everyone is done with Gaffney for now. 😉 I just had to scratch the itch of wondering what her other non-Wyckerley books were like!
They’re all in the TBR … bought in some coupon joy on the Kobo. I hear ya … but I’m giving myself a year before I take on another one. 😉
I can’t recall but I think this was one of Gaffney’s Leisure titles before she moved over to Topaz / Signet. This casually exotic racism was very common in romance generally and Leisure specifically in the late 80’s and early 90’s. (I excuse nothing) in fact this precise thing was considered forward, moving on from Savage Indian trope to Sneaky Opium Slave Trading Chinamen. (I was guilty of it myself).
I am glad these parts of the book no longer hold. Raising the super valid issues with Crooked Hearts that you raise here would have gotten most readers shouted down in Romanceland circa 1994. While I agree with your review completely and rarely recommend this book, I did enjoy it comparative to many others on the shelf that year.
I wouldn’t say this is pontificating – thank you so much for commenting with very helpful info. I am woefully ignorant of the publishing side of things, in spite of being a longtime romance reader. I hadn’t thought of this in connection with other ’90’s titles because I was so focused on the dark/light contrast with Gaffney’s other books. You’re absolutely right that the casual use of “exotics” and other slippery slope forms of racism were much more common back then, and I’m grateful to be reminded about this other lens through which to look at Crooked Hearts. I agree that there was a lot to enjoy in Grace and Reuben’s story – the first half of the book is spectacularly hilarious and full of spark. Thanks so much for visiting me here!
[…] doesn’t blog constantly, but her thought-provoking reviews are worth the wait. Her most recent post shares her struggle with the heavier Patricia Gaffneys, and her enjoyment of Crooked […]
Actually Crooked Heart was Gaffney’s second novel for Topaz/Signet, after Sweet Everlasting and the five or so earlier books for Leisure.
Crooked Hearts is unquestionably a problematic book vis a vis the stereotypical portrayal of the Asian characters.
With regard to Reuben’s background, I only recall being charmed, but maybe I need to rethink this? As a Jewish reader, I’m sensitive to the relative absence of Jewish protagonists from the romance genre, heroes especially. It bothers me that there are so few of them (what, Jewish men aren’t sexy/attractive/heroic?) so I was pleased by this aspect of Reuben, and didn’t connect it to the con artistry.
I also liked Grace’s backstory, and the fact that she was neither a virgin nor a widow caused me to see her as an almost revolutionary character for the time the book was written.
END OF SPOILERS
The only other comedic Gaffney I’ve read is Outlaw in Paradise, her last historical romance novel before she moved on to women’s fiction and The Saving Graces. I don’t remember it that well.
The hero of Wild at Heart isn’t mute at all — not sure what gave you that idea. Wild at Heart is Gaffney’s take on Greystoke, with a hero who was raised by wolves in the wild. Naturally he doesn’t know how to communicate in English when we first meet him, but he does not have a disability. This is my second favorite Gaffney, and like most of her novels it falls somewhere in the middle between Crooked Hearts and To Have and to Hold as far as its level of darkness.
I haven’t read Sweet Everlasting in a long time, but if memory serves, and this may be a spoiler, the heroine didn’t have a physical disability but she had suffered an emotional trauma.
Of Gaffney’s American-set novels, Wild at Heart is my favorite. I don’t think it’s available electronically yet, though.
Thanks so much for visiting my newbie blog and offering a short and much-needed Gaffney 101 course. 😉 The extent of my “research” had been looking at reviews on Goodreads or linked to Goodreads, and I think one of them must have made me think the raised by wolves hero couldn’t speak (as opposed to didn’t speak/understand English). I fully admit I tossed in that comment about the potential stereotyping of characters with disabilities rather too glibly – there are lots of reasons people are unable to communicate with spoken language and I should have been more careful. I was mostly struck in skimming the synopses by how she seems to use various manifestations of a dynamic in which either the hero or heroine are disempowered and/or disenfranchised in a way that sets up a dramatically unequal relationship in terms of power and/or status. Actually, this is something that I find very intriguing about these other books (not so much Crooked Hearts) because it’s often in the exploration of an impossibly unequal relationship that much is revealed and sometimes the power is exchanged and/or reversed in very interesting (sometimes unsettling) ways. Like many others, I find myself returning again and again to Jane Eyre. But I haven’t read enough of Gaffney to draw any real conclusions about this theme.
Thanks, too, for commenting about Reuben’s background. I may have been overstating that as a case of stereotyping, and it’s interesting to know you had a positive reaction because he is, in fact, so fun and sexy — and even decades later there still aren’t many Jewish heroes. He definitely doesn’t come across in a negative light, in spite of his swindling activities. Liz Carlyle’s Gareth, in Never Deceive a Duke, is an astute businessman, also characterized in an entirely positive way. I remember thinking she did a good job with this aspect of his story, but I read it quite a while ago. And it’s not really relevant, except to say that it stood out in my mind precisely because, as you say, there aren’t very many Jewish heroes in romance.
And I like your take on Grace as a revolutionary character for her time. I focused mainly on her physical bravery and boldness in writing this review, but I am inspired to take a second look at her. Now that I think about it, there’s something very ’90’s about the whole thing: two goodhearted good-looking grifters bumming around northern California together, sleeping together with “no strings”, living on the lam, and drinking good wine all the time!
You’re right. I couldn’t recall where it fell. I do think Leisure deserved it’s rep & it took former Leisure authors some time to shed the fetishizing. There were Leisure books I liked in that time period, but mostly it was eyerolling for me.
Wild At Heart is my favorite Gaffney, especially when book clubbed with Hoffman’s Second Nature. Many of us had been calling Hoffman for writing romance without the HEA and Gaffney’s response book was a perfect illustration.
I should read this – although clearly there are some elements that are going to make me twitch a little. I know horrendously stereotyped and racist portrayals of the Chinese are kind of a … trope in most Western homage type things I’ve encountered (weirdly I’m thinking of Red Dead Redemption which is a computer game) but I don’t know it continues to be replicated.
I’ve only read TH&TH and TL&TC, but I have Wild at Heart right here on my desk. I have noticed that Gaffney writes quite unusual heroes – Sebastian is hideously brutal but also oddly thoughtful and perceptive, and his attractiveness is coupled with elegance and refinement, rather than, you know, his rippling muscles and enormous wang. Again, there’s nothing wrong with rippling muscles and enormous wangs, but heroes seem to have such a standard physicality to them, I get genuinely quite excited when they’re, well, not like that. Like I’ve just finished HEART OF STEEL, which I loved, but I did experience a moment of pointless pissyness because the hero is meant to be this languid, gentleman adventurer type and in my head, well, people who are like that should, well, maybe have a different body type and physicality to them. But the moment he got his kit off it he was, you know, all throbbing and muscular.
Hmmm, now I thnk you really should read CROOKED HEARTS, because Reuben is definitely not all powerful muscles and badass physique. One of the things that was interesting was how his physicality is rather elusive – I couldn’t get a strong mental image. Possibly because of the disguises! Also, when Gaffney does linger on describing him, what sticks out for me are the refined and languid details — the best guise being the blind Spanish count at the beginning of the novel, which actually made him sound pretty hot. Small tinted spectacles, elegant hands, etc.
Aaaand I appear to have bought it, damn you 🙂
Those refined and languid details remind me a lot of TH&TH actually – I know it’s weird, considering how profoundly objectionable he is, but Sebastian is one of a scant handful of romance heroes who have actually genuinely come across as … well … sexy to me. And I’m not the target market, so it’s fine that not many do, but I think Gaffney has this really understated ability to convey as you say something about the tantalising physical attractiveness of someone that is not, you know, ripply and generic. I like this elegant concept of masculinity 🙂
What did you think of TL&TC, Alexis?
I’d love to know, too.
I enjoyed it very very much, actually. It was still quite challenging, I think, but in a different way to TH&TH, and a lot of the things I really loved about TH&TH were still there, like the attention to historical detail given to the setting and the deep, deep characterisation. It had a few odd notes for me – the “boo” syphilis as I believe you characterised it. But I liked the the unconventionality of the leads. Aaand I shouldn’t co-opt Pamela’s blog 🙂 I’ll be wearing out my welcome.