The first romantic suspense book I ever read was Mirror Image by Sandra Brown. It was full-on crazysauce, and I’ve never turned back. I still read Sandra Brown, although her books have gotten decidedly less nuts over the years.
While on vacation recently I read Charade (1994) followed immediately by Tough Customer (2010) and it showed me how much Brown has changed as a writer, and also the ways she’s stayed consistent for her readers.
Charade is about a soap opera star named Cat Delaney who needs a heart transplant due to a childhood illness. After getting her new heart Cat is inspired to quit her acting gig and use her fame to help others by running a show featuring foster kids looking for adoptive parents. Two years after her surgery, a Very Bad Person is killing off heart transplant recipients who received their organs the same time Cat did. The Very Bad Person is a relative of one of the donors, gone mad by the thought of their loved one’s heart beating in someone else. Cat knows she’s being stalked and fate/circumstance pairs her up with sexy mystery writer/ ex-cop Alex Pierce, and they set off to find the killer.
Tough Customer is similarly about a woman being stalked by a killer. Berry Malone is nearly killed by her stalker, a man who has now evaded police capture and gone on to kill others. Her mother, real estate queen Caroline King, calls Berry’s absentee father and private investigator Dodge Hanley to help. Dodge and Caroline haven’t seen each other since Berry’s birth, and there is a whole bunch of angsty-pants going on. Also looking for the stalker/killer is Ski Nyland, a Sheriff’s Deputy and Afghanistan war vet. While the stalking/killing/OMG THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE is going on, Ski and Berry are making eyes at each other, causing me to give them the worst/most appropriate couple name ever: Skerry.
Things That Stay the Same
Texas. I don’t know that all of Brown’s books are set here (I’m too lazy to Google), but everything I’ve read is. Clearly she knows and loves the Lonestar State, and the books have a great sense of place.
The Heroes… are still douchebags. I like Sandra Brown as an author, but I’ve never liked her heroes, which is sort of weird. She writes the bad boys, the hardened, chain-smoking P.I., the guy you are not supposed to love. The problem is she doesn’t give them a lot of nuance to make up for their emotional constipation and poor choices.
Alex Pierce was very one dimensional. I seriously pictured Burt Reynolds playing him. Possibly Burt Reynolds as played by Norm MacDonald. He’s a slob, a womanizer (that’s a requirement of Brown heroes—they all apparently are or were pussy magnets), and he’s pretty sexist IMHO. When he meets Cat he suddenly starts thinking of women as real people and writes them into his mysteries as more than just orifices.
Dodge and Ski are far less Old Skooly than Alex. She finally grants them some depth, but not a ton. We get flashbacks into Dodge and Caroline’s relationship in the 70’s. We see the choices Dodge made that backfired on him (career before family) and how he became a cynical P.I. with no relationship with his daughter. Still, both flashback-Dodge and present-day-Dodge weren’t tripping my trigger. He understands that he did douchey things, but he basically went and licked his wounds for 30 years, and by the end of the book I wasn’t convinced he’d changed much.
Ski was more likeable, but we know less about him. He’s quiet and intelligent, sort of a dark horse in the search for the stalker. Everyone expects him to be a bumpkin, but he’s sharp. He wasn’t an outright douche, but he also never really talked much so he had less douche-opportunity.
I’m not saying that there’s nothing to love in Sandra Brown’s heroes. I totally get why people fall for the super tough, alpha, emotionally-distant dude who falls head over heels for the heroine. I’m just saying that I don’t buy their alleged emotional growth. And also her Old Skool dudes have mustaches and it weirds me out. Burt Reynolds.
The Titles. I am mystified by Brown’s titles about 50% of the time. I have no idea what Tough Customer had to do with anything, unless it was referring to Caroline as being Dodge’s customer? But she doesn’t actually pay him and the “customer” thing is more a ruse because Berry doesn’t know he’s her dad so… I can kind of make a case for the killer acting out a charade in Charade but I still could come up with about eight better titles. One of them being You Wagered Texas with a Dollar Sign.
The Sex. OMG I remember when Brown’s books were so steamy for the day. She is decidedly un-purple, and back when I was reading about shimmering lights and crashing waves, Brown was writing actual descriptions of sex. It was sooo naughty, you guys! I mean the heroine in Charade wears stockings and a garter belt. There is cunnilingus. I am totally hiding this from my mom….
The weird thing is, the sex in Tough Customer isn’t all that different. It’s a little less torrid, there’s more pillow talk, but it’s essentially the same. It’s just far, far less scandalous by today’s standards. It’s tame, actually. It goes to show how much the genre, and what's considered risque, has changed since I started sneaking these in middle school.
The Crazy, WTF Endings. Okay, Brown’s books aren’t as crazysauce as they used to be (Mirror Image? The Switch?), but she loves to throw a weird as shit twist in at the end. The end of Charade actually made me angry. Like gritting my teeth angry. The end of Tough Customer made me roll my eyes. I have come to anticipate this surprise ending to the point that I’m waiting for one of her books to end with the character ripping a mask off the bad guy and the heroine yelling, “Look it was Old Man Whatshisface!” and the villain replying, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
Things That Changed
The Heroines. Brown is getting better at writing her heroines, although I suspect some of it just the change in the genre. In Charade, Cat is over-the-top Old Skool. She has “laser beam blue” eyes. She’s basically incredibly attractive, incredibly talented, and every character she meets either a.) adores her b.) wants to bang her or c.) is irrationally jealous of her. She’s funny and tough, and although she has a Tragic Backstory, she has no flaws that make her feel like an actual person.
Berry, by contrast, is an actual person (despite having an Old Skool name). Like Cat she’s tough and smart and beautiful, but she’s flawed. She’s incredibly ambitious professionally, to the point of actually being a bad person. She throws people under the bus if it means advancing her career—and she realizes it. She takes a look in the mirror and decides she doesn’t like that person, and she wants to change.
Similarly, Caroline stayed in an abusive relationship because she was too stubborn and ashamed to leave. Cat was too perfect to ever be abused. She’d see the manipulation happening, put an immediate stop to it, then produce an award-winning TV docu-drama on domestic abuse.
The Detailz. Early Brown featured lots of details about what the heroine was wearing, right down to her big-ass shoulder pads. There were similar descriptions of décor that served to date the books eventually. Cat wears one particularly memorable dress featuring big copper sequins. Her kitchen is described as all white with lots of Georgia O’Keefe paintings and a cow-spotted tea pot (for whimsy). Hair is big. Nails are long. It’s so gloriously early-nineties. I actually love this about Old Skool Brown. In her newer books she’s focused less on trends. Her characters clothes aren’t described in detail, and the décor is isn’t dissected in the same way. As a result (aside from cellphones and Google searches) Tough Customer will probably age better than her earlier books.
The Writing. Here’s where Brown just gets better. Her writing becomes more show, less tell and her dialogue is much, much crisper.
Here’s a scene where Alex/Burt Reynolds propositions Cat. It sounds very Old-Skooly to me:
The unexpected vulgarity doused her desire like a bucket of cold water in the face. She shoved him away.
He raised his hands at his sides in a gesture of innocence and surrender. “You accused the heroes in my novels of never asking permission. I thought I’d give it a try, that’s all…”
“You could have phrased it a little more politely!”
“Okay.” Looking contrite, he folded his hands beneath his chin. “Wanna fuck, please, ma’am?”
Basically all I got from this was that I found Alex obnoxious. Now read this scene from Tough Customer where a man comes forward with a sighting of the villain:
“Yep, lucky for y’all I decided to go fishing this morning. You know,” he said, lowering his voice to a confidential pitch, “you ain’t s’pposed to go wandering off the trails in the Thicket. You ain’t s’pposed to fish ‘cept in designated areas. Them park rangers’ll get you good they catch you at it. But I ain’t never got caught and I ain’t gonna. I’ve been in the Thicket all my life. I’ve slithered though parts of it a pissant couldn’t get through.
“My mama was one of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe. I know, I know, I don’t look like one of them people. I took after my daddy. So Mama said. I never laid eyes on the man myself. He was an oil man. Weren’t no good at it. Dry holes was all he ever drilled. Got on the fightin’ side of some of his investors. One night under the cover of darkness he took off, leavin’ my mama with me still in her belly. So anyhow…” He paused to spit some brown stringy stuff into the underbrush, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Where was I?”
“At the part where I’m gonna kill you if you don’t shut the hell up,” Dodge growled.
Mercury tilted his head at Ski like an inquisitive bird. “What’s the matter with him?”
“He’s worried the fugitive will escape captivity. Why don’t you wait over there Mr. Mercury, so you’ll be handy if we need any further information.”
“Over there?” he asked, pointing to a row of official vehicles parked along the ditch.
“Way over there,” Dodge said […]
“Oil man my ass,” Dodge said. “His mama screwed her brother.”
I picked these two excerpts for their swear word quotient and because they’re an example of Brown using dialogue to show her male leads as the tough grizzled lawmen they are. Alex just comes across like a dick, quite frankly, while I found the exchange with Dodge humorous. I actually could see Dodge saying what he did while Ski stands by emotionlessly.
I enjoyed both Charade and Tough Customer. I’d give them a B- and A- respectively. Basically if you’re going to read Brown you need to decide if you want crazysauce, big hair, flatter characters, and lots of shoulder pads (Old Skool) or better writing, better characters, less crazysauce and no shoulder pads (New Skool). I prefer the Old Skool for the sheer WTF factor and the drama (seriously, go read Mirror Image. Read it right now), but I have to space them out or I get an eye twitch from the douche heroes and perfect heroines. The quality of her newer releases, especially in the supporting characters and the development of the mystery, is more in line with current suspense fiction, but then you don’t get the descriptions of 80’s shoes.
Regardless, I’ve always enjoyed Sandra Brown as an author and if I met her I’d probably pee my pants. I have a feeling she’ll be writing books long into the future and I’ll be buying them.