Tag Archives: paranormal romance

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

{For the Love of Lit Crit is a post series that takes a feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because sometimes analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound! Also, a content note for discussion of guns and violence, though I don’t think things get really graphic or specific.

Meanwhile, during the month of January I’m catching up on a bunch of books from the TBR list, most of which have been out for some time because I am perpetually behind the curve. I’m also tweeting about what I find as I read; follow #Readening on Twitter for comments, thoughts, Titanic design corrections, and critiques of bee metaphors.}

That last long post must really be sticking with me, because here I was reading a lusty paranormal romance set in Jazz Age San Francisco and all I could think about was the violence. Not the sensual wardrobes, not the issues with race — nope, the violence and how actions are morally coded based on the actor rather than the deed itself.
Cover for Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett.

Capsule review: I’m torn about whether to recommend this. I loved the detail of the built world and I’m definitely going to read the next in the series because I already ship Bo and Astrid and I need to at least stay caught up until their story in book 3. And I’m revising a Prohibition paranormal of my own now (with monsters instead of ghosts and magic) so this series is totally Necessary Author Research and probably even tax-deductible. But I had a lot of issues with the way the book dealt with race: those concerns are pretty much covered in this Dear Author review (click the spoiler tag), and they’re just problematic enough that I hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Not because I am easily offended, but because lot of the issues here are recognizable stereotypes with a long horrible history, and seeing them repeated in modern texts can make a reader so damn tired. It’s less How outrageous! and more Ugh, not this again.

I’m glad Dear Author’s review tackled the issues with depiction of Chinese-American characters, because that leaves me free to talk about the contradictory way this book presents violence — specifically gun violence and domestic violence — in regard to our hero.

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

I knew going in that a bootlegging hero was probably going to have to kill someone. Not every rumrunner forbade guns like Seattle’s Roy Olmstead, though I suspect that’s partly who Bitter Spirits hero Winter Magnusson was based on. And there’s definitely room in romantic heroism for killing: Han shot first, after all. So I wasn’t surprised when the book revealed that Winter has a few deaths on his conscience.

I was a little surprised that one of them was his wife, though. Again, spoilers everywhere in this analysis.

It’s negligence rather than murder, but Winter still holds himself responsible for the car accident that killed his mother, his father, his wife, and left Winter himself visibly scarred. The fallout of this trauma is one of the major emotional arcs of the romance. And you know what? All I could think was: That sounds about right. You killed your family, buddy. That feels like one of those events that maybe one shouldn’t be able to entirely get over? It’s like Batman, only instead of a thief in the alley it’s like little Brucie was playing with a pistol and shot Mr. and Mrs. Wayne himself.

(I just giggled for five fully minutes imagining how self-flagellating and angsty Batman could get in that scenario. Batman really is the funniest superhero.)

Winter reserves the greatest measure of guilt not for his parents, but for his wife Paulina — because, he explains, she’d asked him for a divorce and he’d refused: “I should have just let her go. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I think maybe I saw it as a failure, and that was unacceptable … I told her divorce was impossible, that I’d never let it happen … So that’s why I feel guilty — because even though I didn’t love her, I refused to let her go. If I had, everyone would still be alive” (Kindle location 2335).

Heroine Aida replies: “Paulina made the decision to marry you. You didn’t hold a gun to her head.”

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

For one thing, while I haven’t specifically researched divorce laws in 1927 California (anyone with a quick link is free to add it in comments), my understanding is that divorce at this time in this place has to be agreed to by both parties. So that if Winter refuses to grant a divorce, Paulina has to stay married to him, no matter how she personally feels about it. This may not be violence, per se, but it’s definitely an unpleasant level of control for him to exert for very little reason. It feels mean. It feels petty. It feels, in a word, unheroic.

For another thing, he’s literally just told Aida he caused his wife’s death. A woman is dead — two women, and a man, if you count his mother and father, but he doesn’t seem to agonize over that as much. And the best our heroine can muster is: “But the important thing is you shouldn’t feel bad about it.”

I for one am perfectly okay with the hero feeling bad about this. Forever. Maybe not to Batman levels of self-flagellation, but surely this tragedy is more than just an opportunity for him to grow emotionally as a person. There should be consequences for a mistake of this magnitude. Our hero is not in prison, he is not making restitution to his wife’s family, he is not working to make automobiles safer or donating to charity or doing anything else to atone for his actions. He is merely berating himself emotionally. I find it unpleasant that those are the only consequences for such a colossal waste of life, but I am equally loth to see any consequence of that event erased because the heroine feels one should “live in the moment.” (Yep, actual quote, Kindle location 2335 like the others.)

Taken on its own, bereft of genre context, this exchange makes Aida look cold and amoral. She’s not, of course. She’s simply being a Good Heroine: her job in the narrative is to reassure the hero about his past mistakes to prove he is a Good Person Deserving Of Love. And Good People don’t do Bad Things. The hero is by definition a Good Person — ergo his actions are Good, and must be construed in the best possible light. The cause of Paulina’s death was not really the hero’s inattention while driving; the cause of Paulina’s death was her own “character defects” — specifically, not being ‘strong’ enough to leave on her own when her husband refused to divorce her. Her rich, powerful, musclebound, lawbreaking husband with a ton of underworld connections and corrupt cops on his payroll, who’d just said he’d never let her go. Gosh, why wouldn’t she be scared to leave? Again, “character defects” is a direct quote from our heroine. About the dead wife, not about the hero.

I was a little stunned. We’re blaming the dead wife for her own death at this point and I’m supposed to be rooting for these two as a couple.

And it’s not as though the violence of Winter’s career as a bootlegger can be separated from his family life. His job was the reason why Paulina wanted a divorce in the first place. Later, when Aida gets nervous before she and Winter have sex for the first time, our hero reflects: “he was reminded of Paulina, timid and guarded — worse, he was reminded of how he used to feel around her. Like a monster and a bully. Like the bad guy” (2412).

Two points:

  1. Winter clearly prioritizes his own feelings in this moment over his sexual partner’s. He thinks his feeling that he might be ‘the bad guy’ is worse than Aida’s feeling of being unsafe or unsure about the sex they are about to have.
  2. Winter wants Aida because he likes that she believes he’s a Good Guy — not because she has a solid moral compass, not because he can trust her judgment, but simply because it makes him feel better about himself. It’s an ego-stroke, pure and simple. There’s no sense that Aida expects him to do better. In fact, it’s the opposite: Aida is presented as a better match for Winter because she can accept his violent actions.

We are a long way here from the world of Filthy Lucre, where the heroine wants a good man to stop doing bad things, and tells him so. Winter’s tendency toward violence is by definition Good, because he is a hero, and the text gives him leave to be as vicious as he wants, consequence-free.

My concern about this moral framework is not only for Paulina: it’s for our villain, too. Our evil Chinese necromancer villain whose big evil plan is to bring Pauline’s corpse back from the dead as a weapon against our hero. Reader, I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a really fun plot point. I was hoping Pauline would get some of her own back; there’s an earlier scene where Aida, a spirit medium, calls forth a dead husband who exposes his much younger widow’s adultery and callousness. I was hoping either Paulina would get to yell at Winter, or that she’d get to say she understood it was an accident; either one would be fine with me.

Instead, Paulina is a wordless, mindless zombie monster, controlled by black magic. A really lushly described, viscerally gross zombie corpse. Who never talks. Who maybe needs to be exorcised by the heroine and/or shot re-dead by the hero because that’s how we deal with first wives in romance, amirite?

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

The weirdness of the division between Good People and Bad People is illustrated most vividly in a scene between Aida and Doctor Yip, our villain.

Here is the first part.

Doctor Yip’s motivation, as Dear Author pointed out, is a historical truth and major act of bigotry: “After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years” (4126).

Aida’s response: “didn’t.”

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

The text continues: “Aida could empathize with grief for a lost sibling, but she didn’t lash out and kill people for revenge when [her brother] Sam died.” Note what happened here: the villain laid out a sustained, horrible, systemic, racist injustice he personally suffered from, and the heroine rejected his moral claim because she personally had not participated in said injustice.

Here is the second part.

Doctor Yip makes another moral claim: despite the many killings he’s orchestrated, he has not shed a single drop of blood: “‘I have no blood debt on my hands. I am clean.'”

Aida’s response: “‘Just because you didn’t pull the trigger doesn’t mean you’re not guilty.'” She refuses to allow him to salve his conscience with technicalities when the greater point is that he’s responsible for several murders.

These two parts? They happen on the same damn page.

What this tells me as a reader is that the underlying moral structure of this text is tied to something other than action. Or facts, really. Aida resists any moral statement made by the villain, even if doing so means she contradicts herself within three paragraphs. The villain is Bad: he must be opposed. Winter is Good: he must be supported. Even if his actions in this same scene are comprised of several brutal murders (one done with Aida’s complete knowledge and approval). But he’s defending the heroine and himself, so it’s okay, right? He’s Good, isn’t he?

I’m coming down hard on this text not because it makes a uniquely irritating choice, but because it’s a vivid example of something I find all over the romance genre. I don’t mind having Good People and Bad People in fiction; I am not criticizing the lack of moral subtlety. But I do object to moral categories being applied as fixed traits, regardless of what we see a character actually do. Like many readers I bring my own moral compass with me when I read, and it is a rare book that can convince me to abandon it. I can sympathize with a hero who wants to not seem monstrous on page 10: but when we get to 100 and he’s murdered, tortured, threatened, and intimidated his way through the book, I begin to think that all those frightened secondary characters have a point.

If you’ve noticed a lot of gun metaphors — pulling the trigger, put a gun to her head — you’re picking up on one of the very strong motifs of this book. Guns both as props and as symbols are everywhere. Even at the climax of the sex scenes!

… he shuddered in her arms like a great, divine beast taken down by a single bullet.

She didn’t know if she was the gun that fired the bullet or the hunter who’d pulled the trigger … she knew she had made a terrible miscalculation.

She was the one who’d been shot. (2910)

There’s also a lot of guns-as-power imagery, but I won’t tire you with all that. Suffice to say that in the world right now — what with Ferguson, and Ottawa, and Paris, and now Boko Haram — I am increasingly wary of those who idealize guns as the proper tools of Good Men, whose violence shouldn’t be questioned.

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

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Chinese-Canadian romance author Vicki Essex points out that new CBC show Strange Empire is an awesome diverse take on Western tropes, including violence and vengeance.

Speaking of Batman and the pitfalls of vigilante justice, here is a marvelous article from Cracked that lists Batman’s 6 most brutal murders. Some of these veer hilariously into self-parody, and others are just plain awful, so click at your peril.

Leigh Kolb at Bitch Flicks has a grounded and thoughtful feminist reading of Sons of Anarchy’s inescapably violent masculinity.

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Bennett, Jenn. Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties Book 1). New York: Berkeley Sensation, January 2014. Kindle edition.

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