Warning: Fictional description of a woman being raped (not super graphic).
For most people, the Harlequin imprint evokes the classic tattered bodice-ripper books you find in a free box or see at the drug store. Maybe some of you even buy them (I am NOT judging you). I am not anti-emotional porn. Hell, some people I really admire have even read Twilight.
I have my own escapist genre that I enjoy: the hard-boiled detective novel. The more shady the dame is, the more desperate the private dick is, and the more ridiculous the old-thymey slang is, the happier I am. Last fall, when I was feeling pretty hard luck myself, I ripped through a ton of Mickey Spillane and anything else I could get my hands on. It was nice to read on the bus and during my breaks when I was making barely more than minimum wage.
Recently I was at the drug store and I had to wait quite a while for a prescription, so I strolled over to the book rack, which always makes me laugh. Bio of scandalous person of the month, romance novel, stale airport-type fiction…and…what’s this? Something good on the shelf? It looked like an old old detective novel with the original cover painting. I had to pick it up. You Never Know with Women, the cover read. I read the blurb, which promised a caper, some double crossing, and a foxy dame. There was also a note about how Harlequin was celebrating their sixtieth anniversary by reissuing some of their early titles. Neat, I thought. Sold.
For the next couple of days I enjoyed it, and read bits of it on the bus or while dinner was in the oven. The detective was a clever guy who had seen a lot and was about to cash it in when someone made him a cherry offer to rob a safe. The story the detective was given about the contents of the safe and other details was totally fishy and our man knew it. I love a deal that is sour from the get-go–how will he get out of the noose and get away with the cash?
There was another hitch–he sprung the dame who was involved in the caper as well. She was a cutthroat, smoking-hot stripper. Eventually they went on the lam and hid out at a hotel suite. The characters had kissed consensually earlier in the book. Oho sexy tiems ahoy, I thought. Alas, this is where the needle ripped off the record.
“Don’t go shrill on me sweetheart,” I said. “I’m not interested in business anymore tonight. I want a little fun.”
“You’re not getting it from me like this!” she said through her clenched teeth and tried to break my hold, but she wasn’t the only one with steel in her wrists. “Let me go!” she went on furiously. “I’ll scream!”
“Go ahead,” I said, gripping her arms. “What’s a scream or two in this joint? Someone’s always screaming here, it’s part of the set up. Scream as much as you like, if you want to.”
“Let me go–damn you!”
She wrenched an arm free and I collected a punch in the jaw that jerked my head back. She kicked my shin and thumped my sore neck with her clenched fist, but she didn’t scream and her wriggling only seemed to bring her body closer to mine.
I’d been punched around plenty during the past twenty-four hours. I was supposed to be a tough guy, but up to now everyone had been using me as a door scraper. It was about time something went my way.
“This is how it is,” I said, leaning over her. “We’ve been suckers long enough. Now it’s our turn, Blue Eyes, to get what we want. This is what I want and I hope you’ll like it.”
“You beast!” she panted, struggling up and closer still.
I grabbed her shoulders. She tried to bite, but she didn’t try very hard. After a while her arms slid around my neck and she held on like she was scared of losing me. Her lips parted against mine. Her eyes were shining like two blue stars.
Like I said, women are funny animals.
This was a solid third in. So that happened, I told myself. Huh. This book was written in 1949. It is sixty years old, an artifact of another time in pop culture. Does it have historical value as an intact manuscript? Is it ever okay to depict people being forced into sex against their will? How old does a book or movie have to be to make this okay? Should Harlequin have edited this part of the book, which I’m sure they could have done quite handily with a ghost writer, into consensual sex? Does this mesh with other detective novels I’ve read from this time? No. In Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories grown women who are not “trash” or whores seem quite interested in knocking boots with him, with no consequences except for, I hope, orgasms, and bacon the next day. (True story. I think it is cute when Mike Hammer plays house with these women and they have little fry-ups the next morning before he goes off to shake down stool pigeons.)
In the end, that scene was the boner killer, right there. I read on to the next day, where she woke up and recoiled from him, and he locked her into the suite for the day “for her own good,” as she threw vases at his head. I had lost all faith in the protagonist and could not go on. I put the book down.
It’s more interesting to me that she is set up as a “bad girl”–she earns her living stripping and grifting. She talks tough and moves fast–she passionately kisses the protagonist the very first time they meet. As this bad girl character, she could have carte blanche to strip off and get jiggy with the detective. But she doesn’t want him–not then, not like that anyway, and maybe not at all. What was the point of this? Is he more sympathetic because he raped a “bad girl”? Why not just have her consent, as an author in this mindset? It is a puzzle.
So, nuts to this, I say. I am not picking up any more of these. Harlequin, get your head out of your ass and tidy up these depictions of women being raped, or kill the reissues. This is a fucking sloppy disgrace.