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.

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