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.