T is for Twisted

{Content note: the following post is about a romantic suspense novel and contains some discussion of physical and sexual violence. Nothing graphic, but it’s a pervasive mood. There are also some mild spoilers, but that’s the price we pay for informed criticism.

Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

I’ll admit, I picked up Ms. Curtis’ romantic suspense Twisted because not only were there two major characters with disabilities, but also the author has epilepsy and penned a pretty epic rant about disability portrayals in fiction. So I bought a copy of Twisted (see? rants do sell books!) and it kind of sat around until I thought of this post series, because I am terrible at reading books in a timely fashion. And now that we’re in the home stretch of the alphabet — the letter T! I’m amazed it’s gone so fast! — I feel like resisting the urge to talk about specifics of the disability portrayal. Yes, there are two main characters, each with a different disability (one genetic, one a result of injury) that impact their lives and the plot in different ways, but do not take over the bulk of the story. They’re well-rounded and specific portrayals, which is such a relief. But I’m trying to keep this project from becoming myopic, from making the inclusion of marginalized characters a niche topic — so it’s appropriate at times to talk about a particular book’s inclusion in the wider world of romance. Because these books are romances, and must be understood as such. And Twisted in particular seems to be a book that exists in conversation with its genre in a more self-aware, metafictional way: the novel simultaneously illustrates and refutes some of my personal issues with the subgenre of romantic suspense.

Cover image for Twisted by Laura K. Curtis. Cover is divided in two. Upper half is a sepia-toned image of the top part of a blond woman's face. She looks frankly out at the viewer, her curling hair tumbling over one eye. There is a faux-paper tear that prevents us from seeing more of her face. Lower image is blue-toned, a man from the chin down, head tilted slightly to the side. He wears a pale uniform shirt with a star over his left breast. Trees wave ominously through the mist behind him.First, let me say this book is a page-turner; despite the occasional moments of feminist-lens side-eye, I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next and I had pre-ordered the sequel even before I hit the final page. It starts with our heroine, true crime writer Lucy Stone, returning to her hometown to solve her mother’s cold-case murder. I believe it’s significant that Lucy writes true-crime rather than mystery; she’s neither Jessica Fletcher or Harriet Vane (love you, Harriet!). She deals in fact, not fiction: her skills are the same as any detective’s, and unlike many true crime authors she specifically focuses on the victims and the survivors:

“All that time and energy, all that ink and air devoted to a man whose every act was destructive. It’s criminal in and of itself. He doesn’t deserve it. How do you think the friends and families of his victims felt when, every time they opened a paper or flipped a channel, they were confronted by another talking head spouting off about him? He killed those girls, but the media machine erased them.”

“So you fix it.”

“I can’t fix it. All I can do is create a tiny bit of balance, a little resistance.” (1424)

Lucy resists the true crime genre’s slant toward voyeurism and fascination with monsters in favor of empathy for the survivors and the victims of violence. I am very tempted to also read this career choice as a subtle reaction to the way women’s perspectives and experiences are often discounted in the justice system: Lucy is a woman who is literally not in the business of making things up. She’s a great heroine, steely and vulnerable and sympathetic without feeling syrupy.

Our hero, police chief Ethan Donovan, is the perfect blend of laid-back charm and sharp-eyed observation. He’s got secrets of his own and the usual ex-wife — who, charmingly, is not demonized or blamed for his relationship failings! Oh frabjous day! things just didn’t work out — and he’s also got a protective streak a mile wide. And I’ve got an absolute hair-trigger sensitivity for protective streaks: not enough, and I read the hero as callous; too much, and I read him as controlling. Ethan does pretty well, but he has an unsettling tendency to push Lucy’s boundaries in ways that put up the hairs on the back of my neck. One example, from mid-(consensual)-kiss:

He palmed her breast through the jersey and she froze, a reaction even he could interpret. Lost in his own fantasies, he’d pushed her too hard, too fast. He loosened his grip, easing back slightly. She tried to wriggle completely free, but he kept her near. If he allowed her to step away, it would create a rift he’d never bridge.

Besides, he wasn’t ready to let go. He wasn’t at all sure hanging on to her wasn’t the only thing keeping him standing. (1254)

We’ve already had plenty of hints in the narrative that Lucy’s past includes trauma: she goes pale and chilly when certain men show up, she avoids questions about her childhood in Dobbs Hollow, she asks that evidence be sent to the state lab for testing and not the county lab controlled by the sheriff who she went to high school with and who she point-blank claims not to trust. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that something happened, and I expect any decent cop to be able to put two and two together. I would also expect any decent cop to respect a woman’s physical boundaries and resistance, even if they happen to contradict his urgent pants-feelings at the time. Alas, little beats like this crop up continually during the romance and rather kill my buzz. We’re in a romantic suspense, with heightened stakes, where women are being raped and killed and tagged with the word whore, or left to die in a pool of blood on the kitchen linoleum: it’s an atmosphere where I’m encouraged to think of the world of the text as sinister and rife with hidden agendas. Ethan’s disregard for Lucy’s physical boundaries made my stomach twist every time, even after she started to accept it, even as they grew closer both physically and emotionally. It reminded me of the thousand Victoria Holt books I read as a teenager, where the hero is brooding and mysterious and may have killed his first wife but (probably) didn’t (except for that one time he did, not that I can remember which Holt book that was). And we’re supposed to thrill at the contrast of the good man who seems villainous versus the villain who seemed good up until the point where their villainy was unmasked.

The problem for me is the problem of escalation: just as many killers start sloppy and grow more methodical, as Lucy and Ethan discuss, men who push small boundaries are much more likely to push large boundaries. (Required background reading: Shrodinger’s Rapist.) It’s the sense that the hero knows what Lucy needs (emotional support, physical touch) more than she does, and that that knowledge entitles him to override her wishes, expressed or merely telegraphed physically. (And Ethan is under no misapprehension as to her wishes in the above quote.) So while a certain balance was built into their relationship from the start — his disability (bad knee, mild mobility issues) meant he couldn’t be as physically overpowering as many RS heroes, while Lucy’s martial arts training and willingness to pick up a gun felt more empowered than I expect from a RS heroine — it was not enough to override that little pulse of Ethan knows best, Ethan knows best. Especially since all Lucy’s self-defense training never seemed to help her out in the clutch: I feel that was a missed opportunity. And Lucy’s parallel desire to protect her younger brother Tim — who has in fact been targeted by our villain — is presented as a bit suffocating, as something she needs to let go so that Tim can be a full human being. Why is Lucy not granted the same privilege?

This aspect, and a persistent undercurrent of gender essentialism (“super-feminine” was used of our heroine’s feeling of attraction at one point in the text and I rolled my eyes to the point of strain) were my biggest problems with the book, and they are problems I have with romantic suspense more broadly. Why are so many villains sexualized, and so many killing scenes eroticized? I think sometimes there must be a lot of overlap with mysteries and thrillers and horror, genres that skew male in their readership and are thus more prone to make victims out of their female characters in order to motivate their male heroes and titillate male readers. I think the urge to make fictional crimes more shocking and edgy pushes things in directions that go wrong quickly in careless hands. And, too, humans are never entirely immune to the voyeur’s urge. That little twist in the gut that I hate so much is some people’s sought-for pleasure.

Where Twisted really gets interesting, and definitely meta, is not the scenes where characters are in danger. Shootouts in the woods (spoiler?) is a pretty standard climactic move — instead, the genre’s usual feature of the villain’s POV scene is twisted (aha haha) and multiplied, to really great dramatic effect.

Villain POVs are always a bit squicky for me, and the first one we see in Ms. Curtis’ book is no different — except that our villains are named. I was a little puzzled by this, since usually you’ll get a few clues and a few red herrings in this kind of scene, but rarely names. Names give the game away too soon, would deprive the reader of the fun of solving the puzzle along with our hero and heroine. And then there comes a second villain’s POV, from a second villain — and it becomes clear (to the reader at least, if not to our protagonists) that there are two sets of crimes being committed in Dobbs Hollow. That we have two networks of bad guys whose operations are starting to converge and get in each others’ way.

Reader, I was delighted. Not only does this triple my fun as a puzzle-solving reader (solving is the thing that keeps me coming back to mysteries and romantic suspense, despite all my other reservations), but it breaks the usual good/evil binary down. Evil in this book is not a monolith. Some people are monstrous, but some others commit terrible crimes just out of apathy and entitlement. Persistent harrassment, isolation, and poisonous gossip can be as traumatic as outright harm. Good is equally various — witness librarian Eulie, who starts off as the classic Small Town Harridan but segues into a more humanized figure. I won’t spoil the end of the book for you — I will just say that this narrative choice made me super-happy despite all the dozens of disappeared and drugged and raped women, and that is no small thing.

Of course, we do have all those nameless, faceless victims — rapes and murders and kidnappings, other cold cases that have never been solved, that may not have even been intensely investigated, which form the data constellation that helps our heroes solve Cecile’s murder. This constellation shows us exactly which groups of people are considered disposable in the small Texas town of Dobbs Hollow: prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and Hispanic women, no matter their class. There’s an unsettling construction of personal strength, particularly female strength, that sometimes veers a little too close to victim-blaming for my taste. Some sample quotes:

  • “‘It’s only fair you understand up front that whatever he can do to you is nothing compared to how far I am willing to go to find out who killed my mother.’ The words were emotionless, cold, but over the red rage that filled him, Ethan noticed the rise and fall of Lucy’s chest, how her breath came faster and her chin rose even as she half flinched, expecting the violence in him to take physical form. Why would she deliberately provoke such a reaction? Did she even believe what she was saying? He already knew she didn’t trust him, so perhaps this was nothing more than another test. Artie had been right. Lucy’s single-mindedness would get her into trouble in an inhospitable town with secrets to hide. She might not want a protector, but she was going to need one.” (623)
  • “‘Pretty’ doesn’t exactly scream ‘competent police officer.'” (1059)
  • “‘I’m not like those poor Hispanic women you chased through the woods,’ Lucy said, leaning over. ‘I fight back. I’m stronger than you are. Better in every way.'” (3723)
  • “‘He killed her because she wouldn’t sleep with him.’ Impending hysteria added a sharp edge to Lucy’s voice. ‘Of all the men she could have turned down and didn’t, she had to pick the psychotic killer to get some standards with.’ Ethan jerked his head at TJ, who rose and left. He took her spot, putting his arm around Lucy and pulling her into him. ‘She always had standards, sugar. She’d never have slept with anyone in your school, and she never brought men into the house. You stressed that yourself. He broke her rules, rules she set to protect you and Tim, so she sent him and his pals on their way. You’ve lived in Dallas. I’m sure you saw women there who truly lived without standards, whose lives had beaten any fight out of them. You can’t say that about your mother.'” (3738)

Again: if Lucy’s as take-charge and self-protective as the opening scene would have us believe — and it’s one hell of an opening scene — why does she never actually get to fight back effectively in the course of the novel? Why is women’s strength always tied to how sexually attractive and/or available they are? Why is women’s agency — Cecile’s thwarted plan for escaping the town, Lucy’s plan to find her mother’s killer — seen as provocative, as a woman making herself a target? Dobbs Hollow in these moments brought up a lot of the same questions asked about True Detective — remember True Detective? — particularly one raised by the Hairpin: what is the distinction between a work of fiction that shows misogyny, and a work of fiction that is actually misogynistic? I had no trouble buying the realism of the above quotes. But they would make my lip curl if uttered by someone in whose presence I was standing. I’d mark them down silently as a minor red flag and make sure not to have feminist arguments with that person unless I felt like I could spare the effort. Yes, Lucy is a strong heroine in many ways — but when the heroine’s strength is somehow exceptional among her gender, I start to have questions about the politics of the worldbuilding.

In the course of writing this I found a fascinating argument, not all of which I agree with, by author Tracy Cooper Posey:

Romantic Suspense novels had their golden age in the nineties and the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that was when women were just getting used to the idea of equality and beating men at their own game.  The glass ceilings were crashing down all over the place.  Having alpha heroes rescue us was still sort-of okay in our fantasies, until erotic romance fantasies like Sex and the City showed us that we could be equals or better in bed,too.

These days it’s no longer a matter of equality.  It’s a matter of being more powerful and completely different.

She goes on to suggest that paranormals and urban fantasy grew more popular because they gave their heroines power, rather than damselling them, while still preserving the marks of difference that keep men and women from being identical rather than equal (I’m extrapolating from her use of phrases like “And she never forgets she’s a woman”). Someday I’m going to do a lengthy post on power structures (race, class, gender) in PNR/UF, but that day is not today. Suffice to say I rather disagree with her analysis of how power functions in paranormal romance — and her assertion that alpha male heroes and rescue plotlines are a thing of the past.

I quote Ms. Posey’s argument because to me it seems, like the worldbuilding in Twisted, expressive of the idea that women and men are equally but differently powerful. Men in Ms. Curtis’ text are in positions of official authority: sheriff, mayor, DA, chief of police, county coroner, FBI agent. Women are in service or communication positions: author, librarian, cleaning service, diner owner. Lucy’s friend Tara Jean/TJ is a cop, but most of her time is spent either talking with Lucy or eavesdropping on her well-connected family (including the mayor) for our hero and heroine’s benefit. This unequal division of power is precisely what allows for the crimes Lucy and Ethan are eager to solve: women will always be primarily victims in a world that constructs them as inherently less powerful. This is true of Dobbs Hollow, it is true of romantic suspense, and it is sadly true of the real world in which readers live.

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A powerful refutation of the ‘monster myth‘ has been making the rounds of the internet recently, and seems like an excellent companion piece to Lucy’s focus on the humanity of her subjects.

Romance Novels for Feminists has done several posts on romantic suspense and related genres like the Gothic, which may be found via the tag.

Speaking of sex workers, writer and activist Melissa Gira Grant has a great roundup of the best sex work writing of 2013. It’s a lot of links and a lot of information — I plan on coming back to this one many more times myself.

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Curtis, Laura K. Twisted. New York: Intermix, November 19, 2013. Ebook.

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6 thoughts on “T is for Twisted

  1. Sorry, in case it wasn’t clear what I was objecting to. I don’t know the context or to whom she’s talking, whomever it is sounds pretty suspect, but I was objecting to the heroine’s distinguishing that the women are Hispanic in this context, where it can have no purpose. Why are they distinct from “women” or other victims (if that’s the situation)?

  2. The villain chose his victims specifically because they were Hispanic — illegal immigrants who wouldn’t be easily missed by the authorities since their families and loved ones would hesitate to go to the police. I completely agree that context or no, the expression is infelicitous AT BEST.

  3. “Why are so many villains sexualized, and so many killing scenes eroticized? I think sometimes there must be a lot of overlap with mysteries and thrillers and horror, genres that skew male in their readership and are thus more prone to make victims out of their female characters in order to motivate their male heroes and titillate male readers.”

    I’ve thought (and talked) about this topic before. Many crimes are sexually motivated, esp serial murder, and female victims of sexual violence are of course much more common, but I’m not sure that’s a good answer. I don’t accept misogyny from heroes
    because it’s realistic to that world/setting. Every world/setting. But I’m not sure that the answer is to remove sexual elements, keep the heroine safe from it, or reduce the number of female victims. That solution sort of suggests that victimhood and strength/heroism are mutually exclusive.

    Eroticism is a different thing in my eyes. I remember reading a Kat Martin book as a young woman. The heroine is assaulted by a pair of men who cut the bodice of her dress and make crude remarks about her breasts. I found this very titillating. A more graphic assault scene, detailed rape or murder–no. Those elements are too disturbing. I haven’t tried to mix eroticism with danger in my books, either, but some readers see it in there. There is a sort of automatic response, perhaps learned, to a woman in sexual jeopardy. I think I had the same reaction to any Scooby Doo scene in which Daphne is kidnapped and tied to a chair. Very exciting! Now I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not sure if this is the voyeuristic aspect you mentioned or if I have a tendency to objectify women as well as men.

    I recently wrote a scene in which a woman has to escape her captor. There is no nudity, no touching, no sexual language. I didn’t want to describe the villain as ugly or disfigured; his looks are irrelevant. I did my absolute best not to make these scenes sexual. Will someone find them sexual anyway? Maybe.

    Anyway, good topic. I could go & on but I agree with your take on the Cooper-Posey post. I think one of the reasons RS makes readers uncomfortable is that it tends to be more realistic, and the violence more disturbingly possible.

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