Sarah MacLean’s Killer Duke and Eroticizing the Thrill of the Fight (a little violence with your romance, Part 2)

In the third installment of Sarah MacLean’s RULE OF SCOUNDRELS series, a hero meditates on bare knuckles, violence, and identity

In the clearing stands a Boxer William Harrow, Duke of Lamont, called Temple. He’s got tantalizing tattoos, bruising ways, and an identity crisis.

And a Dead Girl Miss Mara Lowe, wealthy heiress gone underground and posing as the widowed Mrs. MacIntyre, head of an exclusive yet impoverished home for orphaned boys. She’s got auburn hair, street smarts, and way too many secrets.

The Setting Regency London:  MacIntyre’s Orphanage and the Fallen Angel gaming hell and boxing club.

Some Beloved and/or Familiar Tropes Hero Wronged by Heroine and Seeking Retribution; Heroine Faking Own Death as Means of Escape; Angst-y, Tortured Hero; Heroine with False Identity; Lovable Adolescent Lads and Hero Who Mentors; Worldly, Knowing French Dressmaker; Strange Bargain Struck Between Hero and Heroine Requiring Humiliating and/or Arousing Wardrobe Selection Outing; Reckless, Foolish, and Selfish Sibling Who Causes Most of Heroine’s Problems; Genteel Heroine Making Sacrifices and Running an Orphanage; Hero Camaraderie and Bromance with Other Badass Heroes In the Series; Adork-able Unusual Pet Thrown In For Good Measure.

Brought to you by Sarah MacLean, in No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (Avon, releasing on November 26, 2013)

How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?  Since my previous post on this subject, I continue to think a lot about the many intersections of violence and violent behavior with plot and character development in the romance genre. When I received NO GOOD DUKE, and re-encountered the mysterious bruiser called Temple who has appeared in the prior novels in the series, I decided to jump on the promo bandwagon and read it right away this month. This is a hero who has made his way in the world by using his brute force to subdue enemies, opponents, and his own inner demons.

In my other post, I basically asked a lot of questions and identified several different ways I think violence (non-sexual) functions as part of the romance genre’s stock-in-trade. I originally got stuck thinking about grim and graphic torture scenes — is there a comfort zone with violence in romance, and are there limits to that comfort? I also wondered about villain POV and violent fantasizing (yuck, this is my least favorite thing to read); hero and heroine in peril and on- or off-screen violence; secondary characters harmed or killed to elevate threat level; and expectations that heroes be capable of protecting themselves and others via the use of force. Astute commenters proposed additional angles including violence between H/h and the connection between amped up violence and increased explicit sexual content. Running throughout the discourse are questions surrounding the genre’s use (reliance?) of “acceptable” violence, badass heroes who never back down from a fight, and the ways in which a hero’s capacity for violence may be eroticized. Enter Sarah MacLean’s Temple, who is No Good Duke.

This is a book that unabashedly celebrates the sexy of the violent hero, even as it questions his objectification in the boxing ring and the prurient female gaze. Although he’s a brute, he’s a good man unjustly punished.

And in spite of Temple’s violent history, the actual violence in this book is well within a comfort zone for historical romance. It’s all about the character development — this is a master class in using the hero’s POV and reflections, along with the heroine’s observation (and that of other women) of his body at rest and in motion, to inextricably link his hotness with his violence, without having him actually cross the invisible hero line or take the reader beyond what might be called a normalized level of violence for historical romance.

Like many a hero in any historical setting, Temple will gladly deliver a brutal street beatdown if it’s justified (eg. protecting or rescuing), and it goes without saying that this behavior is presented in a positive light. And yes, I do think it’s meant to be sexy. Mara finds it so. Here’s Temple schooling the orphanage boys and subtexting:

“Protection.” Temple’s knuckles still ached from the night of Mara’s attack. He looked to her, grateful for her safety. “That’s the very best reason to fight.”

Her cheeks pinkened and he found he enjoyed the view. (p. 149)

But if he beats down opponents in the ring on a nightly basis for a living, or seems regrettably habituated to breaking other people’s ribs, anything un-heroic about that is offset by Temple’s own misgivings and meditations on fighting, hurting, and truth.

He fought for the moment when he was nothing but muscle and bone, movement and force, sleight and feint. For the way brutality blocked the world beyond, silencing the thunder of the crowd and the memories of his mind, and left him with only breath and might.

He fought because, for twelve years, it was in the ring alone that he knew the truth of himself and of the world.

Violence was pure, all else tainted. (pp.5-6)

By contrast, when we see Temple via Mara’s POV, his fighter’s body and the traces of violence it bears give rise to impure thoughts. On the one hand there is Mara’s “legitimate” desire, expressed through touch in the intimacy he allows as she binds his wounds.

“I want the rest of the story. You became unbeatable.”

His bad hand flexed against her hip. “I was always good at violence.”

Her hands moved of their own volition, sliding across his wide, warm chest. He was magnificently made, she knew, the product of years of fighting. Not simply for sport, but for safety.

“It was my purpose.”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “It wasn’t.” (p.320)

On the flip side, and more interesting, is the way MacLean touches on the heteronormative objectification of male violence and the prurience inherent in the Fallen Angel’s winning business model, which incorporates a women-only one-way mirrored viewing gallery alongside the ring, where ladies of all classes mingle, wearing masks, for ogling.  It’s an interesting, possibly ahistorical, element that can be read as a sort of equal-rights mitigation for the overall setting and the gaming hell’s undoubted, unavoidable exploitation of the feminine charms of certain of its employees. (Heroes who run gaming hells always seem to do it in the least sexist way possible.)

“Any minute now,” a feminine sigh came from several yards away, and the entire room – on both sides of the window – seemed to still, waiting.

They were waiting for Temple.

And Mara found that she, too, was waiting.

Even though she hated him.

And then he was there, filling the doorway as though it were cut to his size, broad and tall and big as a house, bare from the waist up, wearing only those scandalous tattoos and buckskin breeches fitted to his massive thighs, and the long linen strips she’d wrapped along the hills and valleys of his knuckles and around the muscles of his thumb and wrist as she tried not to notice his hands. (p. 179)

This is from a lengthy and pivotal scene at the midpoint of the novel. (I don’t want to say more about the twist-y plot negotiations that go on between the couple here because it’d be spoilerish.) MacLean begins by eliding  Mara’s desiring gaze with that of the other women in the gallery, but quickly pulls her heroine away into quite a different emotional space:

“I’d risk a night with the Killer Duke to find out!”

The laughter fairly shook the room, nearly all of the women taking immense pleasure from the words – from their own additions to the lewd suggestions. Mara looked down the room, at the long row of silks and satins and perfect coifs and maquillage, and the way the women fairly salivated at Temple, remembering his moniker but not the truth of it – that he was a duke. That he deserved their respect.

And that, even if he weren’t a duke … he wasn’t an animal. (p.181)

What’s also rather masterful is that all this bobbing and weaving around the romance convention of a hero who’s a sexy beast of a violent badass dude, but really a good guy, is happening sort of on a meta level that entwines with the plot, which centers on Temple’s mistaken and undeserved infamy as a brutal murderer. Known to all of London as the “Killer Duke,” he’s been tried and convicted of Mara’s murder in the court of public opinion, and has never been received or accepted in his rightful ducal role. Yet the reader knows from the start that he’s not a killer, that his life of violence began in exile and survival and has flourished as a form of self-destructive, pain-numbing expiation of sins not committed.

At the orphanage again:

“Well. This is a treat. It’s not every day a duke gives up his title to take on work.”

“I hear it happens quite often in novels,” Temple said. (p. 141)

Temple has taken on more than work in response to the loss of his reputation — he’s simultaneously reduced himself to the basest survival skill and raised it to a form of contemplation and sacrifice. His face and body are textured with scarring and traces of fractures. Mara’s gaze on his scars, her attention to his past and present injuries, become her means of approach and connection. Temple and Mara share a dark and too-familiar knowledge of grievous injury and bodily harm and seeing this in each other engenders the beginning of forgiveness and redemption for both. 

early 19th centry gloves

via History Hoydens

Bare knuckles bare a lot This novel makes much of the sexy dissonance of a manor-born duke as a bare-knuckle brawler. Mara lavishes care on the bruised hands which have served him as weapons and tools of destruction yet touch her with only gentleness and grace. I loved how, in return, Temple attunes himself to observing Mara’s hands. One of the first chinks in his armor of anger at her deceptions and secrets appears when he notices that she has no gloves. He begins to know something about her hardscrabble life as he observes her work-roughened hands. She binds his hands in linen; he buys her gloves. This is something else they share. Capable, somewhat battered hands may not seem like a sexy detail, but I loved the chemistry MacLean created with these parallels.  

In a sense the violence of NO GOOD DUKE, both that which is depicted and that which is inferred, becomes a form of redemptive suffering, and not just for Temple. Mara is a survivor, and not just of her own “murder.” To say more would involve spoilers, and this post is already over-long. I will just conclude by saying I loved going more than a few rounds with this couple; although I started out focusing on Temple’s “violence is pure” rhetoric, I quickly got caught up in their stories and their romance.

Disclosures I received an advance copy of  NO GOOD DUKE GOES UNPUNISHED from Avon, in exchange for an honest review and as part of the Addicts program, along with a sweet little swag deck of cards — so I can pretend I’m gambling at the Fallen Angel, presumably.  As an intermittent blogger, I may be the most slacker Addict ever, and have wondered seriously in recent months whether I should stop taking the free books. 

no good duke

It seemed like a good idea at the time, back in May when I was even less sure than I am now how this blogging thing was going to evolve. I think this is the first time I’m even attempting a post to coincide with a release week. But how could I not? This book is practically a treatise on writing a sympathetic violent hero, and raises all kinds of interesting questions.

Also, I’m a MacLean fan. The books are so much better than the silly titles, and perhaps that’s part of the fun. And I met her at the NECRWA conference book-signing last spring, so there’s a bit of fangirl squee to acknowledge — I know she’s charming in person as well. Last but well worth revisiting – she’s a badass advocate for the genre.

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Reader, they married. What if Jane Eyre were a series?

What if Jane Eyre were a series? Would we like to hang out with the Rochesters as a married couple?

Full disclosure:  I’m not actually going to talk about Mr. & Mrs. Rochester all that much. It’s not a series and Charlotte Bronte didn’t write a “Thornfield Book 2.” So if you are offended by a mild Bait & Switch approach, let me offer my apologies. But there’s another Bronte-esque, moody married couple I have been spending time with lately, and it’s got me thinking…

Back in May I posted about my intoxication with the gothic, Eyre-ish romance of Lady Julia Grey and the maddening, enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane. I’d just finished Book the First in Deanna Raybourn’s Silent trilogy, and it provoked me to indulge in a near-orgy of adulation for this couple as a re-invented post-feminist, mystery-hunting version of the challenging, unequal, yet deeply satisfying romance between Jane and Rochester.

In August, I gobbled up three more tales about Brisbane and Julia, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes these novels work as romances. They’re not published as such but the marketing – especially the original paperback editions (US only? I’m not sure.) – suggests the romance genre and I think they enjoy a wide popularity with romance readers, in addition to the nebulous “women’s fiction” readership and/or lovers of romantic historical fiction.

Having just finished the fourth novel, I am currently visiting with the Brisbanes as newlyweds. They are enjoying what would in a traditional romance be their well-deserved HEA. They’ve had an extended honeymoon across Europe, solved a mystery in India, and are preparing to make their home in England together.

A quick recap: Silent in the Grave (2007) introduced Julia and Nicholas over the dead body of her husband. Secrets emerge, the murder is solved, they get in each other’s way a lot, conversations smolder. Destiny is foretold; gratification delayed. It’s achingly romantic, and I loved it.

In Silent in the Sanctuary (2008), they meet for the first time after a year’s separation when Julia’s father throws them together at a large house party where a murder occurs and everyone is trapped by a heavy snowfall. A classic whodunit-at-a-house-party story. What ensues is a reluctant courtship of sorts, with other potential lovers aplenty and Brisbane nursing — in his inimitably enigmatic way —  all the carefully constructed reasons he ought not to act on his obviously intense attraction and deep emotional connection to Julia. This is Brisbane at his most maddeningly remote.

Silent on the Moor (Lady Julia, #3)With the third novel, we reach the most Bronte-esque of settings when Julia tracks Brisbane to his neglected Yorkshire estate, complete with colorful household staff, a windswpet moor, and a madwoman. Silent on the Moor (2009) is the story — at last — of this couple’s reconciliation and acceptance of their feelings for one another. At last they marry. But Raybourn infuses the conclusion of the Yorkshire book with sufficient uncertainty to leave plenty of room for further romantic tension and conflict in subsequent novels.

Dark Road to Darjeeling (Lady Julia, #4)And of course, this is precisely what we get with the next book, the start of a new, “Dark” trilogy: Dark Road to Darjeeling (2010). I still love this couple, and I’m willing to follow them down at least a few more dark roads.  But I found myself falling out of the story more often as I read, and looking harder at whether it still reads like a romance.

The series is ineffably clever and Raybourn sustained the buildup of romantic tension so well over the first 3 books.  At the same time each novel has its own narrative arc that tracks with many romance conventions.  These include a sudden and/or unexpected meeting, mutual attraction  and romantic entanglement, a dangerous situation, fear for the loved one’s safety, deception of the beloved (often motivated by protective urges), confrontation, betrayal, rejection, reunion, and ultimately a satisfying yet tantalizing expression of love and dedication. The first two such expressions are somewhat oblique, but potently symbolic. While they certainly don’t constitute a traditional HEA, they are enough to scratch the romance-reading itch that demands some kind of declaration by the hero which is accepted by the heroine. In short, although not romance novels, I found I experienced each book in the Silent series as a self-contained “romance read,” and I rejoiced for Julia and her smoldering Gypsy-blueblood husband, when matrimony was finally achieved at the end of the first trilogy.

Dark Road to Darjeeling opens with marital bliss but quickly tears the Brisbanes apart as they receive information about a possible murder and revert to their pre-nuptial behavior of attempting to manipulate each other and exert control over an investigation in which they each have a particular interest. Julia begins a deliberate campaign to prove her worth as an investigator and withholds so much information that the two are at arms length emotionally even when they are physically reunited about halfway into the book. For me, the first inkling that this book was going to be a different sort of read was the fact that early on I became completely annoyed with Julia’s passive aggressive behavior. She’s too often on the verge of sharing useful information with Brisbane, only to withhold it in order to try and do him one better, and it just comes across as spiteful. But was her behavior different from the previous books, or am I holding her accountable differently because he’s her husband now?

To put it another way, is Julia written differently as a wife character, or am I reading her differently as a wife character? Intrepid and strong-minded, or foolhardy and shrewish? Brisbane as a husband strikes me as about the same combination of stubborn inscrutability, ruthless possessiveness and hidden vulnerability, as he did when he was loving Julia from afar — it does come across differently near the end of the book, but a bit more about that anon.

These questions also remind me that there are very successful romance novels where the H/h are married to each other from start to finish (I’m thinking right now of several wonderful historicals by Sherry Thomas, including Not Quite a Husband and Private Arrangements, but there are also contemporary examples such as Ruthie Knox’s recent novella, Making It Last, which is – interestingly – part of a series). So I don’t think what I’m puzzling over is the question of a married romance vs. a romance that ends with marriage. It’s more about the idea of a series — told over the course of multiple books — that follows a couple over the relationship lifespan – how does that work within the romance conventions, or does it? Can I keep coming back to the same couple, even if I do find them quite intoxicating, and receive the same novel-reading pleasure that takes me on an emotional journey to an HEA (or some kind of stand-in for the HEA) — or will it at some point start to wear?

On the up side – with Julia’s married POV, readers can look forward to elegantly circumspect yet deliciously pointed conversations alluding to Brisbane’s …er, appetites, and the sexual and emotional intimacies of the marriage bed. This kind of thing, along with domestic interactions (he takes lots of baths) and discoveries, deepens the emotional impact of their exchanges and their manipulations. Yet the constant push/pull between them started to wear on me somewhere along about the third or fourth time they played out their cycle of intrigue, deception, discovery, confrontation, rupture, confession, reunion…more intrigue…

But this novel can also be read as a portrait of a marriage in the making.  It’s a very young and fragile marriage between two quite mature and willful individuals. Yes, I grew (quite) weary of Julia’s endless attempts to circumvent Brisbane and her self-righteous and unbecoming piques when the shoe is on the other foot and he out-maneuvers her. By the same token, Brisbane’s high-handedness almost started to seem manufactured or arbitrary, a necessary dramatic element to further their romantic tension. Without stepping into spoiler territory, I must say that I found the test he sets Julia at the end of the book held a slight hint of D/s which seemed to come out of nowhere.

But perhaps what makes the book succeed as a romance is that it asserts marriage itself as a series of these narrative arcs. There are absences and chance encounters, intrigues and partnerships, withholding and separations, confrontations and communions, ruptures and renewals. And these cycles can occur more than once in a couple’s journey. I’m pretty sure most people would agree this is true in real life — the question is, do we want to read about these exhilarating (or exhausting, depending on your point of view and/or what’s happening in your personal life) roller coasters when it’s a fictional couple we hold dear?

Leaving aside the issue that they might not have a new mystery to solve every 6 months or so, would we want to read more books chronicling how Jane and Rochester fared?  I think I probably would find them irresistible, and they’d certainly be commercially viable, but Charlotte B may not have wanted to write them.

This may be one of the important ways Brisbane and Julia are NOT like Rochester and Jane – the mysteries provide the opportunity and the means for new chapters of their married story, and their ongoing battle of wills provides the motive to keep reading – and writing – them as romances.

2006 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, an apocryphal final scene

* * *

The Lady Julia Gray series is published by the MIRA imprint of Harlequin. I purchased copies of these first four books at my local used paperback shop. I’m hoping they may have a copy of #5 – The Dark Enquiry when I stop in there this week. If not, it’s going in my Amazon cart, because I’m definitely along for the ride with the Brisbanes, in spite of my quibbles.