Friday, March 23, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Deanna Raybourn, C.S. Harris, and Diana Gabaldon

What makes a guilty pleasure guilty?

Those of us who admittedly read for pleasure, rather than chiefly for information, presumably don't need to feel guilty about it. Of course there are literary snobs, who only read critically acclaimed literary fiction, but if you are reading this blog, you probably aren't one of them. Personally, I have long since accepted that it is no shame to read genre fiction. Mysteries are the bulk of what I read. And yet, there are certain authors and series that I classify as guilty pleasures.

The pleasure is easy to define -- compelling entertainment. The book is unputdownable. The reading is easy. The characters are recognizable, feeling like old friends from the get-go. The guilt could be summed up with what the Supreme Court once said of pornography: little or no "redeeming social or artistic value."

Partly that means that I won't be learning much. I know I said I don't read chiefly for information, but I don't mind acquiring knowledge with my entertainment. I enjoyed Tony Hillerman's mysteries, for instance, as much for the insight into Navajo life and culture as for the characters and plot. Since I read a lot of historical mysteries, I usually expect to find tidbits about the time period that I didn't already know. At the very least, I expect the kind of historical accuracy that doesn't allow for modern slang or other anachronisms. My artistic bottom line is even higher. I expect well-developed characters, believable situations, strong sense of place and period, narrative flow. I will forgive almost anything for truly felicitous style. I adore contemporary thriller writer Lee Child, guilty for a lot of reasons including extreme violence, but totally brilliant for clean, sharp style.

So what puts the guilt in my current list of guilty pleasures? Some of these fall down on style, but they are all at least workmanlike. (They wouldn't be pleasures if they were not eminently readable.) Some have little to offer in terms of new information. Okay, I'm an intellectual and academic snob. I'm afraid that they are over the top, unintentionally silly. I'm afraid they're too lowbrow.

I just finished Dark Enquiry, fifth in Deanna Raybourn's Victorian series about Lady Julia Grey, and I'm just starting to get a little annoyed by her. (The character, not the author. I think.) Up till now, Raybourn's books have been almost all pleasure, however guilty. On the pleasure side, the books are ridiculously engaging and readable -- a must for guilty pleasures. The tone is quite arch and can be very funny, witness the opening of the first book, Silent in the Grave:  "To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." (Obviously, Raybourn walks a line between humor and darkness that can be vertiginous.)

One of the joys of following this series has been getting to know Lady Julia's nine siblings. Like a Victorian version of the TV show "Brothers and Sisters," they are a group of eccentric opposites who are constantly involved in each other's lives. Julia's oldest sister, Jane, is an out lesbian -- and I know quite well that's an ahistorical statement, which is a problem. Much as I love the idea of Victorian lesbians being out, I'm pretty sure that upper-class Victorian lesbians went unannounced and almost entirely unsuspected. Merely living with and making a life with another woman, as Jane does, was not considered disreputable for an upper-class woman, however romantic the attachment. Fiercely romantic friendships were common, without any sexual stigma attached. So add to the guilty side of the equation this rather breezy approach to historical attitude, with period ambience supplied largely by the hansoms and horses and silk hats.

Now for the annoying part. In her latest outing, Lady Julia is married to private investigator Nicholas Brisbane, and her chief goal in life is to be involved in his professional business, to be a real partner in his investigations. This is a little too Lucy Ricardo for me, especially when she blows up his laboratory--for the fourth time!--experimenting with gunpowder. The plot suffers from other convolutions as well. But once we are off to a gypsy camp (teeming with atmosphere and lots of doubtless well-researched facts about the Romany), I was putty in Raybourn's hands. So I will be back for book six, even if I do have to put a plain brown wrapper over the decolletage on the cover.

Then there's C.S. Harris, whose Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries now number seven, and I've read every one -- eagerly. Yet I can hardly even tell someone the name of the hero with a straight face. He is not only Sebastian St. Cyr (one hopes this is pronounced "sincere," in the British fashion), he is also the Viscount Devlin, the youngest but only surviving son of the Earl of Hendon. And this is only the beginning of the vexed question of Sebastian's heritage. When we meet him in his first adventure, What Angels Fear, Sebastian is deeply damaged by his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, and is deeply in love with the appealingly independent actress Kat Boleyn. Sebastian has excellent side kicks (a street urchin who becomes his servant; an opium addicted, grave-robbing doctor) and an excellent nemesis (Lord Jarvis, the power behind the power behind the throne).

If you don't see any problem with the preceding description, then this series may be for you. If it makes you laugh, maybe not so much. I'm right in the middle, conscious of how ridiculously contrived the series is, yet enjoying it immensely. C.S. Harris, a PhD historian who should know better, actually describes her hero as "Mr. Darcy with a James Bond edge." And therein, I guess, lies the problem. The characters feel familiar because they are derivative; the situations outlandish not because they are historically incorrect but because they adhere to gothic or romantic conventions. (Churches and crypts and cemeteries abound.) Worst of all, from my point of view, there is an overarching story arc that allows Harris to continually reveal more secrets in each book -- which makes it kind of like my least favorite genre, a soap opera. (I can't help but think of the scene in "Tootsie" when Dustin Hoffman takes off his wig and goes into a hysterical explanation of how and why she is really her long-lost twin brother.) Will this keep me from snapping up the next installment? Absolutely not!

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (time travel with kilts) is one of my partner's chief guilty pleasures, but I somehow never got hooked. Not until Gabaldon detoured into historical mysteries -- with a gay hero! For me, Gabaldon's Lord John mysteries are the Godiva chocolates of guilty pleasures. Gabaldon deftly avoids the anachronistic attitudes about sexuality that crop up in Raybourn's books and elsewhere. Lord John's proclivities, although deadly serious (sodomy was still a capital crime in the 18th century), emphatically do not constitute an identity. Lord John is many things to many people -- son, brother, soldier, lover, citizen -- and he tries to discharge these duties faithfully, even when they conflict, as they often do. In addition, Gabaldon's 18th century setting is so seamlessly convincing that it practically constitutes, well, time travel.

So what's the problem? Maybe just that I'm having too much fun! I want to hide out in Lord John's club (the Society for the Appreciation of the English Beefsteak) by the fire on a snowy day in London and watch the 18th century go by. However, duty calls; and when it does, Lord John may end up with his regiment on the battle field in the Seven Years War, or having hot gay sex in the barracks. Yes, there is explicit, almost soft-porn sex in the series.That might be enough to put the guilt in a guilty pleasure.

What are your guilty pleasures? Particular genres? Particular authors and books? How embarrassing does a book have to be -- or how pleasurable -- before it constitutes a guilty pleasure? Please comment. I have revealed all and I don't want to be the only one. Besides, I really want to know.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

WW I Nurse Smackdown: Maisie or Bess?

Jacqueline Winspear writes an excellent series about former WW I nurse Maisie Dobbs, now (that is, 1929, when the first book takes place) a "Psychologist and Investigator," according to her business card. The first novel in the series, Maisie Dobbs, begins with her current investigation, then flashes back for the middle third to give Maisie's life story, before wrapping up the mystery with a nifty surprise ending. The daughter of a groom, Maisie was in service in a great house. She was given a chance at education by her employer and became the protegee of an eccentric genius, Dr. Maurice Blanche. The ninth book in the series, Elegy for Eddie, will be published in March.

Bess Crawford is the heroine of a relatively new series by Charles Todd, the mother-son authors of the Inspector Rutledge series mentioned in my last post. The three books in the series so far are A Duty to the Dead, An Impartial Witness, and A Bitter Truth. A new Bess Crawford novel, An Unmarked Grave, is due in June. Although born upper class and following in her father's tradition of service to King and country, Bess is a thoroughly modern woman who travels independently between France and England, rooming with a number of other nurses in London whenever on leave. The Bess Crawford books are the only WW  I  mysteries I know that actually take place during and in the war, with scenes set in France, in hospitals at the front. So far, however, the mysteries themselves mostly take place in England while Bess is on leave. [If you are not already a Bess Crawford reader (or even if you are), consider joining an online "Bess Crawford Read Along" at the Book Club Girl site, beginning now.]

So who wins the WW I Sleuthing Nurse Award -- Maisie or Bess? Who's your favorite WW I nurse? Please comment. Or nominate your own favorite sleuthing nurse. (Cherry Ames, anyone?)

I'm going to cheat, and divide this into two categories. As mysteries, I like the Maisie Dobbs series better, both for plot and for the overall reading experience. But for a best friend? I'd choose Bess Crawford in a nano-second.

Let's face it, Maisie Dobbs is an odd duck and a cold fish. She's so annoyingly New Age-y, always conscious of her breathing and her body language. And what exactly did she learn from Maurice, other than to pay attention to her feelings? (Use the force, Luke. Stretch out with your feelings.) To Winspear's credit, some of the elements that seem most anomalous are based on solid research. My favorite example is the time that Maurice recommended that a wounded vet try Pilates exercises, which, come to find out, were designed by a WW I P.O.W. Similarly, most of the metaphysical and even supernatural elements of the stories are rooted in the Twenties, the pre-eminent decade of spiritualism and psychoanalysis.

Nevertheless, Maisie is way too restrained and judicious to be much fun as a dinner companion. I'd much prefer her best friend Phyllis, superficially so frivolous and gossipy, but solid as a rock underneath. Some of this has to be written off to class differences, of course. This is actually another of Winspear's strengths -- the wondefully nuanced way she shows us the dilemmas of a working-class woman who is changing her status, in fact pioneering in the brave new world of professional working women. Maisie's relationships with Billie, her assistant, and her ex-employer, Lady Compton -- even her relationship with her own father, Lady Compton's groom -- are loaded with class-related complications. On the other hand, I often feel that if Maisie weren't such a bossy know-it-all, she wouldn't have a lot of these complications.  At least, she is a professional investigator, which gives her a legitimate outlet for her busybody tendencies. It also makes the mysteries so much more straightforward.

Which brings us to the chief weakness of the Bess Crawford mysteries: the (un)willing suspension of disbelief. In the first book, I was willing to believe that a WW I nurse would go to great lengths to deliver the dying message of a soldier, and to get involved when that message seemed to fall on deaf ears. By the third book, however, I wanted to scream (like Sassy Gay Friend), "What, what, what are you DOING?" Why do you even care about these people and (especially) why are you still a guest in their home?

The good news is that Todd writes sharp, suspenseful disaster sequences (including the brilliant opening sequence of the first book, A Duty to the Dead), which serves this series well. The bad news is that the mysteries all have to be solved mostly in England, mostly on leave -- which seems to happen often and/or be extended indefinitely, and that adds to the disbelief.

As a friend, however, I think Bess would be a gem. Although born an aristocrat, she seems thoroughly modern and open-minded. Bess shares rooms in London with a number of other nurses, who are almost never on leave at the same time, but if they were, you feel they could have jolly times together. Bess is brave, impetuous and even flirtatious, almost Maisie's opposite. Of course, she's backed up solidly by Mom and Dad -- and her father's right-hand man, who is always available as chauffeur, bodyguard, and surrogate big brother. Bess may be modern, but her life is not the process of self-invention that Maisie's is.

So, who do you like better and why? Please comment (or I will be sad).