by Claudia Dain, historical (2003)
Leisure, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5059-5
Claudia Dain not only changes her setting - from medieval Europe in her last few books to Kansas during the late 19th century for this one - but creates a Western story that is fascinating. The hero is dark, sinister, ruthless, but utterly devoted to the heroine - think an Anne Stuart-type hero after some lessons in gallantry - while the heroine is anything but ordinary. A Kiss To Die For has me from the first word and while the pace flags a little throughout the middle, recaptures me with the rather dramatic but very romantic - albeit in a very twisted way - finale.
It is as if the author has taken several very different elements common in Americana and cheerfully blends them into a dark, nihilistic tale of romantic suspense where murder and obsession and love rule. This sure isn't your everyday "tormented misunderstood outlaw healed by virgin widow" story. Take a beautiful eighteen-year old girl who waits at the Abilene train station every day at the same time - what or who is she looking for? Out from a train one day comes a bounty hunter who, while manhandling his America's Most Wanted poster boy, comes off like a walking stereotype at first. Someone is murdering sweet young women as he seems to be traveling down from town to town. The spread of the railway lines is a true cause for concern for the lawmen as this grants the killer greater mobility across Kansas. The local lawman asks Jack to stick around and help solve the murders, but soon it becomes apparent that Jack could easily be the biggest suspect. Have they asked the wolf to guard the sheep pen?
This story loses most of its suspense because it is published as a romance and hence I know for sure that the bounty hunter Jacques Scullard (or Jack Skull as he is known) can't be that killer. Yet the author is still slyly planting landmines of doubts in my mind late in the story, especially when it reveals that the hero may have a mommy-complex that triggers a part of his feelings for Anne Ross, our heroine.
Anne is simultaneously an interesting and exasperating heroine. She's interesting because she comes off as a doormat, but she actually isn't. She nods in deference to her tyrannical grandmother but secretly plots mischief behind the grandmother's back, abetted by her aunt Sarah. In a town where she is the only woman under the age of thirty, she often dreams of one day getting on one of those trains and never coming back. She has a beau, Bill, who is taking her for granted. She likes him, but she also resents being pressured into marrying him by the women of her family. She has seen how her mother, aunt, and grandmother all got hurt by men. She's old enough to want a life better than theirs, but young enough not to know how to go about achieving that life. In the end, she decides to get close to Jack, hoping that Bill will... actually, I'm not sure if she even knows what she is doing. Ah well, she's eighteen, stuck in a dead-end town, and here comes a handsome man who's also tall, dark, and dangerous. I can relate to that.
Once the reason for her being at that station every day is revealed, my feelings regarding Anne's behavior actually improve tremendously. However, the author doesn't actually succeed in creating a coherent personality in Anne. Anne remains silent for so long, I'm still not sure who she is by the end of the book. Jack's back story is revealed only late in the story and for a long time he too is an enigma. However, I really enjoy reading about how their personalities slowly develop as the story moves along. Anne is a complex character in that it is very difficult to describe her using a single label. She's no doormat, she's no martyr, she's not a good daughter, she's loyal, she's religious, she's harboring devilish thoughts of sins - she's absolutely fascinating to read. Jack is a more conventional character: it is very tempting to dismiss him as a stereotypical "outlaw hero", but he never pretends to be noble. While he may have a stereotypical "outlaw hero" background, he is his own man. He has done some horrible things in life and he won't even bother to sugarcoat that aspect of him. Still, for Anne, he'll grow angel wings, and failing that, literally sacrificing his life for her in that truly, gloriously overwrought finale that has me in bliss. He doesn't die though, Anne isn't that stupid to let him be that stupid.
Anne may be still an enigma to me at the end, but she's never boring. She grows up. Likewise, Jack is a really nice dark hero whose corruption of Anne has me riveted. These two characters aren't angels and thank goodness for that. I'm not sure how other readers will react to Anne and Jack, but I suspect that Anne Stuart fans may be more amenable to the many degrees of ambiguity in the actions and motivations of these two characters. They get jealous, they are fickle, they are selfish, but in the end, they all do the right thing because love makes them fools that way.
The serial killer plot is actually a nice complement to the story, because it creates a great degree of drama in the mystery that is Jack. He could be the killer, and the author toys with me that way pretty much through the entire book. Maybe the beau is the killer? Claudia Dain is too good to stoop that low to cop out that way, so don't worry, people.
One significant problem with this book - apart from Anne's characterization - is that the middle portions of the book can drag at places. The author uses a pretty contrived plot device to increase the degree of proximity between Anne and Jack, but still, the relationship between those two are really well done. Anne is attracted to Jack not because she wants to change him or make him her charity case, but because she is a passionate woman inside who is attracted to the darker aspects of Jack. Their relationship rings real because the author takes time to flesh out her characters until they resemble human beings with both flaws and strengths instead of pigeonholing Jack as "misunderstood" or Anne as "virtuous".
By the way, the character study is not done to the extent of that in the author's medieval romance novels. Claudia Dain readers may be surprised at just how much plot-driven A Kiss To Die For is compared to her previous books. Yet at the same time, the complicated characters are still there. Even better, this time these complicated characters filled me with joy as I read about them because I love this kind of stories. I love stories where the characters are fascinating and ambiguous, where the suspense is well-drawn, and where elements like religion actually play a prominent part in the scenes of epiphany. This book is simultaneously a story of Anne's corruption and Jack's redemption and how these two somehow come off as better human beings because of love. And [spoiler starts] any book that makes the act of patricide a gesture of love that takes this twisted old reader's breath away [spoiler ends]? Now that's a work of art!
There are some rough edges in this book and I wouldn't mind having those middle portions of the book tightened a little (the author could have used those pages to tighten up the characterization of Anne, for example), but there's no denying that this book has me reading all the way to four in the morning even when I have to get up at seven on the same day. For me, this The Railway Children gone Bonnie And Clyde is, well, maybe not a story to die for, but it's a story to read, that's for sure.
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