Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It’s a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned.

Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There’s an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex — except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction — literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever — is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance — bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS — and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he’s a bank robber who’s brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they’ve taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual.

The very first thing we see is heroine Theodora Holliday — Teddy — being robbed. She’s in a general store at the wrong time, and a small man with a shotgun takes everything in the till and the purses of the two women present. Unlike the other (white) woman, Teddy initially refuses to hand over her cash: she needs it to buy flour to make a pecan pie for her elderly neighbor. She only changes her mind when it becomes clear the choice really is between her money or her life. She hands over the purse and fumes all the way home — money is hard to come by, and losing twenty dollars means her choices become more constrained. She resents that her kind and generous impulses (the pie) have been thwarted by someone else’s violence and greed.

This is therefore not an auspicious moment for our hero Louis Daniels to make his entrance — especially as a white man, in a fancy car, flashing a Hollywood smile and a wad of bills. Teddy often rents out rooms to make ends meet, and Louis is looking for a room somewhere quieter than the hotels in the middle of town. (The town is Joplin, Missouri, *ominous musical cue for those who know their Bonny and Clyde*.) Teddy is instantly (and correctly) suspicious of both his whiteness and his obvious wealth: “In her twenty-eight years, she’d learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them… the man was just as ‘shiny’ as his car. Something about him set her spider’s senses off” (page 7). She turns down the extra cash, despite her straitened circumstances — a single white man boarding with her will be cause for damaging rumors and innuendo, and she’s pretty sure he’s got an agenda he isn’t being open about.

Then the man offers her a hundred dollars. Per night. For three nights. It’s a ludicrously high sum; for comparison, here is a current Seattle AirBNB listing for about the same price with a ton of amenities in a great location with excellent reviews. Teddy caves: “She’d heard people say that everyone had their price, and he’d found hers” (8). This is good money, an irresistible windfall, and she allows herself to be persuaded.

But what has she been persuaded by? Money in the earlier scene was something that increased Teddy’s agency. But here, money substitutes for trust: Teddy’s distrust of the shiny man is put aside in favor of an astronomical sum of cash. The less trust Teddy has initially, the more money it would take to change her mind. Now money is itself what limits her choices, what constrains her actions. Or to put it another way, Teddy is choosing one short-term limit (shutting down her inner qualms) in favor of a long-term goal (being financially stable for months). It says a lot about this book that I never felt like Teddy was powerless, even when she was technically being victimized. It always felt like she was making clear-eyed choices as best she could in an imperfect world, and that the text wasn’t interested in punishing her or in making a fetish of her weakness (with one possible exception, which I’ll get to in due course).

Even though her decision has changed with the money, her mind is still clear. When her handsome new tenant offers to go to the store to get the flour she couldn’t buy earlier, Teddy’s suspicions are alerted again: “Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn’t sure she was buying what he was selling” (11). Money is again a stand-in for trust, but in reverse: now instead of taking money to compensate for her distrust, Teddy is (metaphorically) reluctant to offer money as a signal of trust. Money’s symbolic value in the text is already amazingly fluid, and we’re only eleven pages in.

The Unheroic Hero

We switch to Louis’ POV for a trip to the same store Teddy was robbed in earlier. Surprise! He’s not a good man, or an honest one. He’s shot people for cheating him at cards. He’s robbed banks before, too, despite telling Teddy he’s not on the run from the law. And then there’s this revealing passage, which I’m going to quote in full:

Louis left the store wondering why the owner assumed he was married and then remembered the ring on his finger. He’d never taken it off, even after Laureen had up and left one day a few years ago saying she was sick of living off the measly money he made doing road work. She’d gone off with some starched-collar type who worked at the Kansas City credit union.

One of them fancy head doctors might say that Laureen’s leaving was why he’d started knocking off credit unions, eventually moving up to full-on banks. And maybe that fancy head doctor might be right; maybe he was trying to get back at her, as though he had something to prove to her memory at least. (15)

Olivia’s notes: No shit, Sherlock. This is classic hero backstory, a man getting revenge on his evil materialistic ex. (Romance heroes are so pissy about rejection sometimes, I swear.) And as part of my habit of always trying to see things from the Evil Ex’s perspective, I have to say: I can completely understand why someone would care about the financial stability of their partner during the Great Depression. It is the Great Depression, Louis. I’m sure your feelings are hurt by the fact that your ex wants to, you know, eat every day, but I’m not sure that a bank robbing spree constitutes a really mature emotional response to romantic disappointment.

To give Louis his credit, he knows this is not a sustainable career path. And he’s never killed anyone, which is important both for his own morality and for my comfort as a reader. But like Teddy, he can’t resist the siren call of an enormous sum of money: “The money split up evenly would mean twenty-five thousand dollars for each of them. That was enough dough to keep him on the up and up for a while” (19). Louis has made plans to rob the Joplin Citizens Bank with three other people named Bud, Buck, and Sis; he met Bud when they tried to rob the same store at the same time: “They’d held guns on each other; then Bud had broken out in a laugh and said, ‘Halfsies?'” (20). Reader, I laughed. But this agreement means that Louis is handing over a certain amount of agency in exchange for a payoff: Bud is volatile and violent and unpredictable, a killer. The Joplin bank has only one elderly guard, but Louis is already worried the man will try to play the hero and get shot by an angry Bud.

Spoiler: Louis is right to be worried. But it’s easy to say that Bud and Buck and Sis aren’t due until the next afternoon, when right now you have a good home-cooked meal and a pretty woman to talk to over a highly symbolic pecan pie. And a slow dance with the radio on, and a good steamy kiss. Despite Louis’ secrets, which the reader is privy to, it’s lovely watching these two characters connect. They have a great deal in common despite the barrier of race (which the text does not shy away from in the slightest).

And then Bud shows up early and ruins everything. First, we learn that he is the man who robbed Teddy at gunpoint yesterday morning. Nice friends you’ve got there, Louis! Then he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow, which is when I yelled “Holy shit!” out loud and dove for Wikipedia to read up on Bonnie and Clyde before things went any further. Because honestly, I never in my life thought I would read Bonnie and Clyde as the villains in a romance novel. It’s a great portrayal: humanizing without glorifying, empathetic and scary at the same time. The choice of characters takes only a minor liberty with history in a way I can easily approve of, and it plays into the text’s themes in a way I won’t forget for quite a long time.

Bud quickly realizes Teddy is an upstanding soul and therefore a liability. Suddenly our heroine is a hostage in her own home, her life very explicitly in jeopardy. And she is pissed at Louis for his role in events: Snake! Here she’d given him a room and a good meal and … and her company … and this was how he repaid her. The money he’d handed her yesterday morning couldn’t even begin to make up for this” (41). Louis tries to apologize, but Teddy’s not having it: “‘Sorry is worth to me about a sliver of a penny and not even that'” (46). Instead, she begins deliberately exploiting Louis’ physical attraction to her, trying to win him over to her side, to deepen the bond they’ve formed so he’ll help her escape. He sees what she’s doing but goes along, since it means he gets to touch her more. (Heroes, amirite?) He’s trying to win her over as well, to make her see things from his perspective:

‘I hate preachers! … They’re like the cops, supposed to be helping you and what do they do? They take just like any robber you’d meet in the street. Same with the rich folk. They’d sooner kick you in the teeth than help out a child starving in the streets … The big fat cats of the world have at least taught me a lesson. Those that got keep getting. They’re not out on the roadsides, putting up tents, finding clay and dirt to eat. They’re sitting down to plates of steaks and potatoes — with the — with the gratin — and the champagne. Yeah, I want that. I want not to ever have to worry where my next meal is coming from’ (51)

This is a persuasive argument, emotionally speaking. What’s more, this speech marks Louis as the kind of Bootstraps Billionaire we see so often in both contemporary and historical romance: the man whose anger propels him to fame and fortune, the poor kid made good through sweat and seething vengeance, the self-made man who builds an empire on ruthlessness and intelligence and daring. Captain Wentworth from Austen’s Persuasion is probably the origin point of this trope; see also every hero who runs a gambling hell in fictional London or who owns a penthouse apartment in a major contemporary metropolis. And generally such heroes have to either atone for the ruthless things they did on their way to the top, or learn that true love means more than bespoke suits and chrome furniture, etc. But here there’s a twist — and honestly, I think this is really innovative for a romance — because we’re catching Louis at the beginning of that typical arc. This is the Self-Made Hero before he’s Made (shiny Studebaker notwithstanding). Teddy’s job (as a heroine, not as a person) is to convince Louis to abandon that whole arc at the beginning. To give up on the money before he has the money to give up on.

I gotta say, that’s a pretty radical move. Will he change his mind or go through with the bank robbery as planned? I was dying to know.

A Disarmed Heroine

Teddy’s rejection of Louis’ chosen means to wealth could not be more clear: he offers her a cut of the bank money, to compensate her for the danger and stress of being held hostage. She not only refuses that, but also gives back his original three hundred dollars:

“I’m not taking it back…”

“And I’m not keeping it…” she said as she let the bills fall to the floor. And their stalemate began.

She refused to pick up the bills, and he simply pretended they weren’t there. (74)

THE MONEY LITERALLY COMES BETWEEN THEM I swear my lit-crit brain was giggling so hard at this point. Note the language is clearly tilted in Teddy’s favor: she’s the active one, refusing, while Louis is merely pretending. She’s the one in touch with reality, and he’s kidding himself. By giving back all the money she’s taken from him, Teddy is withdrawing her implied participation not only with the coming robbery, but with everything Louis did to earn that first wad of bills too. She’s making her distrust of him foremost in the relationship again. She’s choosing her self-worth over his expedience. And she’s doing it without being at all idealistic or naive: she knows damn well what that money could mean for her, but she knows she would betray herself by accepting it. She’s principled in a realistic, grounded way. Also — and this is only striking me as I write this — she manages to refuse money without ever once resorting to prostitution references or using the word ‘whore’ or anything. She talks about sin and souls and the devil, but in the context of reckless murder during a robbery such language is fairly tame.

Have I mentioned how much I love Teddy? She’s great. Just great. I only have two small reservations. 1) I was, and I can’t believe I have to type these words in public, supremely uncomfortable with what I can only refer to as the Amos ‘n’ Andy sex scene.

2) I can’t stop wondering what the author could have done differently with Teddy’s knife.

Teddy keeps a knife strapped to her thigh because she’s dealt with harassment before and wants to take no chances. It’s a nice counterbalance to the secrets Louis keeps during the initial few days of the novel: he’s hiding a criminal past she doesn’t know about, but she’s got a weapon he doesn’t know about. It evens the scales and ups the stakes in a way that had me steepling my fingers.

Unfortunately, Louis catches sight of the knife when she attempts escape and takes it away. Now, for the first time, Teddy is presented as a victim: “He hated that she seemed so broken. She might as well be their first casualty. Not actually dead, yet something dead inside” (77). He also notes the knife was tied with a red ribbon — a detail that sexualizes the exchange, as though Louis were a bridegroom removing a very sharp garter. (I should clarify that Teddy is not a virgin — this is explained but not used as a shocking plot point and it was great.)

And now, if you’re anything like me, some practical questions arise: How do you tie a knife to your thigh with a ribbon? There’s no indication of a sheath, no indication that this knife is anything other than a common kitchen utensil: are you telling me Teddy’s walking around with a butcher knife tied to her leg? Edge-out, or possibly dangling? Right alongside the carotid artery? This does not seem safe. This does not seem possible. And none of it matters, because once Louis takes the knife it disappears entirely from the text.

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

Or rather, since this book takes such issue with violence, I wanted her to half to stab somebody and to choose not to, or to choose to stab somebody in defense of her life or in defiance of principle. I wanted this to be a thread that tied up, not one that was cut short. Chekhov’s gun is meant to be fired, after all. Instead, the text saves Teddy from having to make that choice. It felt a little bit like a waste.

Bonnie and Clyde

Mirror couples are fairly common in romance, particularly when there’s a theme to illustrate. Bonnie and Clyde here are a contrast to the hero and heroine — they are the Charlotte and Mr. Collins of this novel. It helps a lot that they’re called Sis and Bud because it gives the reader a sense of distance: the historical facts don’t get in the way of the characters on the page. Louis is puzzled by their connection and puts it in monetary terms: “He’d never figured out why Bud had taken up with her. Probably because she gave out easily what many women put a high price on” (56). This is pretty much the only time sex work is used as a money metaphor, so kudos to Ms. Cullars for avoiding that particular pet peeve of mine.

The more I think about Bonnie Parker in this book, the more amazing her character becomes. In the early chapters I was cringing every time Sis spoke: she drops the n-word, she’s described as a bitch numerous times, she’s unhappy and unpleasant and picks fights with our heroine. The men leave to case the bank for the robbery, and Sis is given a gun in case the hostage proves troublesome. Everyone is tense — Teddy in fear for her life, Louis in fear for Teddy, Sis because she would rather be going with Bud. Then Teddy’s neighbor Mrs. Williams (of the aforementioned pecan pie) drops by and it’s looking like we’re going to start the part of the book with the shooting before we even get to the robbery.

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

Mrs. Williams doesn’t know there’s a gun in Sis’ pocket. She can tell Sis is unhappy, though, and treats her gently. Like a real person. Somehow, now that the men are gone, these three women are able to simply spend an afternoon talking to one another about their lives and their hopes. Sis even recites one of Bonnie Parker’s most notorious (real) poems, which Mrs. Williams greatly enjoys. The threat of violence is dissipated — for the moment, anway — and afterward Sis starts treating Teddy better, helping out in the kitchen and everything. Teddy meanwhile sees Sis walking down a road our heroine wants to avoid, getting caught up in murder and mayhem for the sake of a man she loves beyond choice, beyond morality. When eventually — after many turns I don’t need to go into here — Teddy ditches Louis (oh, she was totally right to do it), she does so in part because she doesn’t want to end up like Sis, alone and friendless and cut off from society.

In the moral framework of this story, Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody death — not a spoiler, because who hasn’t seen stills from the Warren Beatty film? — could have been presented as a punishment. The hand of justice strikes down evildoers, that kind of thing. Instead Ms. Cullars puts it on-page in Bonnie’s POV, which may be one of the most startling things I’ve seen in a romance in some time. It’s intensely human, almost a stand-alone short story, and I know it’s going to haunt me in the best way. There’s no sense of voyeuristic pleasure, no sense that Sis gets “what’s coming to her,” even as the scene is much more violent than the usual fates of villains in romance. When the death makes the headlines, everyone is all “good riddance” except for our hero and heroine, who secretly find themselves mourning the loss. The moral position of the text is clearly weighted against celebrating the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.

Again, that’s a pretty radical move.

There’s a lot more I could talk about — the heroine’s house, the realistic handling of race, the evil ex, the family issues — but my stars, we’re nearly at four thousand words already. Suffice to say that you can’t write four thousand words about just any romance: this is a book I’m going to be thinking about for some time to come.

___

I talk a lot about the meaning of money in this review of Jeannie Lin’s phenomenal romance The Jade Temptressand also reflect (rather more loosely) on money in romance here.

While I’m tooting my own horn, I’m also spending this month catching up on a great many books from my TBR: follow #Readening on Twitter for real-time updates, comments, and links to future reviews.

Jackie Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great discussion of money in category romance, and how heroines deal and don’t deal with money (with a really thoughtful comment thread, too).

My favorite detail from the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry on Bonnie and Clyde: “Several days later [slain highway patrolman] Murphy’s fiancée wore her intended wedding dress to his funeral, sparking photos and newspaper coverage.” That is some grade-A fuck-you material right there.

If you have the spoons for it, reading about sundown towns in America is terribly illuminating. Especially when you start searching the database for places you have lived. Content note for violent racism, white supremacy, and lynching.

The Toast has an excellent list of wealthy heroines in romance, for a palate-cleanser.

A fleeting anachronism led me to the history of the nylon riots after WWII, which are one of those things you think can’t possibly be real until you see the photographs and read witness accounts.

___

Cullars, Sharon. Filthy Lucre. Loose Id Publishing: 2014, PDF.

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2 thoughts on “Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

  1. Wow, any author would be so pleased with such an intelligent and comprehensive review. I feel I absolutely must read the book now. (But I am left wondering what on earth an Amos ‘n Andy sex scene is??)

  2. You’ve convinced me that I need to read this book. Now to find out if my library has it or if I’m going to have to buy it in order to read it.

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