Old Skool vs New Skool Sandra Brown

Book Mirror Image 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.

Burt Reynolds burt-naked laying on a bearskin rugAlex 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:

“Wanna fuck?”

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?”

“Cute.”

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.


Charade is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo.

Tough Customer is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo.

Mirror Image is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Lostshadows says:

    I’ve never seen the term “tough customer” used to refer to customers. It generally seems to be used for someone is, or at least seems, resilient.

    As in, “He is one tough customer. He took three bullets and still managed to save the tstl heroine.”

  2. 2
    Ocotilla says:

    French Silk by Sandra Brown is set in New Orleans

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    Important question: does naked Burt Reynolds need to be bigger? (The image, I mean, not Burt himself).

  4. 4
    kkw says:

    I love Sandra Brown. Love. I don’t like suspense as a rule, but I adore crazysauce, and Sandra Brown brings it.

    I can’t say I found her writing to get better, because I always loved it. It would be surprising if it hadn’t, I’m sure Elyse is right on this one, but I never noticed. I can’t say that the evidence selected is very convincing, however.

    The scene from the earlier book is tight and serves a clear purpose. The hero is pushy and the heroine is prissy, but those seem like legit flaws that need each other to produce character growth. The second scene seems more like filler, maybe only cause I don’t know who colloquial dude is or why he’s talking. If that’s the point, surely there’s a better way to make it, and in a much longer passage we’ve learned less about the main characters. Dodge is grouchy, but Mercury and Ski are apparently just exposition. (What is happening? Let me tell you.) Birdlike exposition and straightforward exposition, but that’s about all I get.

    And that’s plenty of Burt, thanks. Almost as upsetting as David Hasselhoff with pugs on his crotch. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get your mind bleach ready before you google image search.

  5. 5
    PamG says:

    I love Burt Reynolds.  My mom made a point of getting the Cosmo issue with the centerfold, because “It’s about time a man….”  But that’s not why I love him.

    The porntache, the hirsute pecs, the butt in leather pants….  Nope.

    The talk show sketches where he and Johnny Carson got chummy with a can of Reddi-whip and those leather pants.  Or Dom Deluise dumped eggs down those sleek shiny unmentionables and smacked them flat while Burt laughed his ass off…. Getting closer.

    Here’s why I love Burt (Bring your eye-bleach, kiddies):

    http://awfullibrarybooks.net/the-bandit-bares-it/

    http://awfullibrarybooks.net/the-bandit-bares-even-more/

  6. 6
    Barb in Maryland says:

    Elyse

    You just covered her romantic suspense.  You really need to track down her earlier westerns(!)  She also wrote a number of contemporary romances under different names for a bunch of publishers (including writing for Harlequin as Erin St James).

    Yes, she is a native Texan—hence all those books set in Texas.  She was also a model for a while at the well-known Fashion Mart in Dallas—hence all those glorious clothes descriptions.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.  I haven’t read any of her books in years—the crazysauce did me in—I just couldn’t take it any more!

  7. 7
    chacha1 says:

    I started reading this because I was curious what you’d say about Sandra Brown, an author I have read twice and regretted both times, but stayed for Burt.

    Call me Old Skool, but thank you for that Monday eye candy.

  8. 8
    The Fairy Godmother says:

    “Mirror Image” was the first romance in my grandmother’s stash that didn’t have a heroine I would had gladly walloped upside the head. Granted, the other romances were Barbara Cartland and similar, but I still have fond memories.

  9. 9
    DonnaMarie says:

    “Breathe of Scandal” pretty much ruined Sandra Brown for me.

  10. 10
    jane says:

    I’ve been reading Sandra Brown for years but lately I just can’t anymore. She’s losing me. Tough Customer was the last book of hers that I actually remember liking, minus a few things.

    I feel like her old school books were ridiculous but in a fun way, almost a nod to the genre—more about romance than suspense. But it seems lately a lot of her books have been more suspense with a side of romance and that makes the crazypants plots less easy to swallow, plus they’re just boring.

    That one book about the guy pretending to be a bad guy and solving the mystery by looking at the tattoo the heroine’s dead husband made her get . . .

    The lady who somehow caused her husband’s paralysis (I think?) so he was angry at her and wanted her to get pregnant by sleeping with someone else so she did . . .

    the one where the girl writes a “fictional” account of her stepsister’s death and there is all this family drama only to find out the stepmother killed the stepdaughter . . .

    and yet, so boring!!

  11. 11
    PropellerBeanie says:

    “Alex Pierce was very one dimensional. I seriously pictured Burt Reynolds playing him. Possibly Burt Reynolds as played by Norm MacDonald. “
    I laughed so hard at this image I almost fell out of my bed! This is hysterical, especially in the context of how Sandra Brown writes her heroes. Thank you for making my night!

  12. 12
    Susan says:

    Haha—I zoomed my screen up to 200% for Burt.  I liked Burt Reynolds back in the day because I always felt that he didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was laughing, too.

    I couple of years ago, I read an Old Skool Sandra Brown where the heroine was super tanned with ultra white bikini lines.  It was supposed to be very sexy, but it just reminded me of Tanning Mom (Patricia Krentcil). And the hero was equally sexy when he lounged around in his shiny black and gold track suit.  I could barely focus on the story (and I can’t even remember the name of the book now) because I was so horri-mesmerized by details like that.  Some of the old Jayne Ann Krentz books strike me the same way.

  13. 13
    Jill-Marie says:

    Sandra Brown is very (very) hit or miss for me. Some of her books I really like (“The Crush,” “White Hot,” “Chill Factor,” “Smash Cut”) but others I have to slog through (I’d put most of her older “contemporaries”—“Demon Rumm,” “The Rana Look,” the “Texas!” books in that category). I agree with the “there’s always a twist!” bit.

    And sorry, Burt (bare assed or not) just never did it for me. Although yes, he was very, very funny with Carson.

  14. 14
    Bona says:

    Sandra Brown is one of my favourite authors. I’ve read everything -including all the 1980s backlist. Not all of her books are set in Texas. But she usually prefers Southern environments.
    I only remember two books that go outside the USA, and they are terrible: one in Switzerland and another one in an island in the Pacific. Now that I think about it, I remember another one with an interesting end in Paris, but that was very nicely done.
    When she describes a Southern setting, I think she is wonderful. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but she certainly creates atmosphere!
    Anyway, thanks a lot for this dissection, I’ve never thought about the things you say here. I agree with most of what it’s said. But I difer about her heroes, I like them -generaly speaking. Really, I don’t know why, perhaps because they sounded so different, when I started reading her in the 1990s… And I just go crazy with her twisting and turning, and the final surprise! I even loved the end of Lethal, which was very discussed.

  15. 15
    DianeN says:

    Although I haven’t read Sandra Brown in years, I still remember the big hair, the shoulder pads, the ambiguous titles and the very non-PC heroes. It’s interesting to see how her writing has changed over time, and I agree with you that the sample from Tough Customer illustrates a change for the better. I could hear Mr. Mercury’s voice, and picture him, and she did it all with dialogue! Good stuff.

    I found it especially interesting that despite all the things you noted which had changed for the better you still preferred the Old Skool Brown to the New. I’d have to guess that would probably surprise Ms. Brown (and her publishers)!

    Great article, btw. There are a lot of romance authors who have been writing as long as Sandra Brown has—how about a series?

  16. 16
    library addict says:

    I am more than a few books behind on more recent Sandra Brown releases.

    I kept all of her books when I moved as I spent years tracking down her entire backlist (this was in the days before the internet when one had to snail mail used bookshops from the ads in the back of RT – lol). I’m not sure how well all of her books have stood the test of time. It seems to me she used to write more romance but has gone more to the mystery end of the scale (still often with a romance subplot, but it is not as central to the storyline as it used to be).

    That said I still have mad love for Mirror Image and Slow Heat in Heaven. She’s also the only author I’ve ever kept reading even though she killed off a hero and a heroine (separate series).

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