Saturday, July 11, 2009

Females in Peril: Part I

Being Stone Barrington's Girlfriend: The Most Dangerous Job in the World.

Over the years I've reviewed quite a few of Stuart Woods' novels, in particular the Stone Barrington series. I believe there are around 17 in the series, though I haven't counted them recently. Barrington is a cop-turned-lawyer who works for a high-class law firm doing investigative legal chores and handling the firm's rougher-edged, more troublesome clients. He has a fabulous house, spends his evenings dining and drinking (Knob Creek bourbon) at Elaine's, has terrific sex with fabulous women, (some of the best sex scenes in the business) hangs with his partner from the old days, Dino Bacchetti, jets around the world on assignment and vacations in exotic ports of call. It's a good life. Sometimes Woods turns in the direction of darker material, but, in general, the women are beautiful, the clients are interesting in a dangerous sort of way, and the banter is always amusing. Dino pretty much sums up the series when he says of his friend, “Wherever you go, people drop dead, and women take off their underwear.”

Unfortunately for Stone's girlfriends, they're the ones who often end up dead. But only after they've taken off their underwear.

Reviewing this series is pretty much the writing equivalent of a romp in the park. The books are around 300 pages and in this business you get paid the same as when you have to slog through a dense, 550 pager. All in all, it's an enjoyable process, and I give him good reviews. So why do I sometimes have this nagging sense of guilt when I hit the send button and the review is on its way? Here's why. And it's certainly not Stuart Woods' fault.

I'm getting really sick of Female in Peril plots. Serial killers who take fiendish delight in their young victims. Wives and girlfriends of spies and action adventure heroes who, and I know this as soon as I read how much in love they are, are doomed. Maybe they won't actually die, but they'll probably be shot, tortured, blown up, run off the road, maimed in some way and left to linger in a coma for the rest of the book while the hero races to avenge his love. Yes, sometimes, they're rescued in the nick of time, but not until blood has been shed and pain, oh, exquisite pain, has been inflicted. It's a terribly unoriginal scenario. And every once in awhile I'll be pleasantly surprised by a new twist on this tired theme.

But there's more. Here's when I really become disturbed. Sometimes, not very often, and I couldn't tell you what the cues and clues are, but sometimes I feel as if the author is having just a little too much fun writing these scenes of violence and degradation. That somehow, deep down in his dirty little soul, he's enjoying it.

Strangely, it's not even the most horrific novels that give me these particular creeps. While Thomas Harris can be among the most gruesome, I never get the feeling that Harris is that way. Woods is certainly never guilty of looking like he's enjoying the mayhem, but there are others who go too far, who dip into titillation, who just seem to enjoy the blood. And the pain.

I consider myself a scrupulously fair reviewer. I try to open every book without preconception. And yes, I understand, we're talking about fiction. But beware, you who would write such works, I do not let them pass unscathed. My pen, as well as yours, is just as capable of drawing blood.

So OK, Mr. Woods, lighten up on Stone's girlfriends. Let's not have every kiss be the kiss of death.


  1. I don't read that many thrillers, but I do agree with you.

    But then again, we are talking about male writers for the most part and unfortunately, boys will be boys.

    Harking all the way back to Ian Fleming, women have been the butt of male written plot points forever.
    Tied, handcuffed, slapped around and locked in dark rooms, they became a reason (well, actually, one of the only reasons) for the male hero to face great danger, dodge bullets and risk his very life all for the life of a lovely and always shapely young female.

    It was not only between the covers of the books, but also (and this was quite true of the old pulp novels)on the covers themselves.

    Lovely young women, scantily clad, sometimes tied up with mouth always opened in the middle of a scream...well, you get the idea.

    Sex sells.
    Always been true and always will be true. But yes, there are times when the writer(s) tend to lean a bit heavier on the darker side in both books and film.

    But then, it's a business at the end of the day. The books have to get sold to a mostly male audience and the films need to sell tickets.

    But there have been times when I have been bored of it all enough to look elsewhere for my entertainment.

    And until more customers talk with their wallets, we'll just continue to see more and more of it.

    As I sells.
    It all depends on just how much of it the consumer is willing to buy.

    The bad part might be that there may be a slump in literary sales and the writers are spicing the pages a bit to keep what remaining readers they have left.

    If true-- it may be awhile until we see some changes.

  2. What the poster said is undoubtedly true, but I'm talking about writers who go beyond the usual mayhem, who cross boundaries that I sense but can't quite articulate. Am I the only one who feels this way?

  3. No, what you feel is real. "Thought becomes reality." I stay away from the darkest thrillers because I don't want to be drawn into that space; e.g. Dennis Lehane even though he's a fantastic writer. I put down Patricia Cornwell when she gets particularly fascinated with the details of her serial killers. Forgive me for ancient hippie-speak, but I have no desire to match my personal "vibration" with that low, heavy frequency. That's probably wizards were loathe to voice He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Words have power. Valdemort voiced brought evil that much closer to reality.

    It's a complicated thought, Mr. Appel. "In the beginning was the Word…"

  4. From a reader's perspective, I'd like to take a shot at articulating the boundary you mention. I think I would identify any writing which puts undue focus on the violence / victimizing / to the extend of 'glorifying' it. I mean, I can enjoy a well done action film for example, but I wouldn't be caught dead watching a 'snuff' film or anything that tries to emulate one.

    I also consider the characters of a book to be 'associates' to some degree, if they are people I would not want to get to know on a personal level, then I wouldn't want an overly intimate dunking into their minds and personality, because in a really good 'read' I feel like I'm going along for the ride in the main character's mind so to speak, so if that ride is taking me places I don't want to go, I'd feel that same discomfort.

    But, I'm sure the 'paying' market has to some degree an attraction for that darker side, and some authors cater to it, whether because they revel in it or just want it to sell.

    You can see how society has changed - Media continues to push boundaries that were unthinkable 20 years ago, as being natural now, because the audiences, like adernaline junkies, need greater and more outrageous 'fixes' to be able to be entertained.

    Look at the movie Jaws - it holds a PG rating, yet it terrified millions of people. Today the movie audiences and producers would have demanded an R rating, wanted more than the victims getting eaten, they would have wanted them eaten while being shown naked, preferably attacked while having sex, and a big plus would be some CSI like real time shark chewing and digestive system CGI effect to go along with it.

    Sorry for the ramble, but you seem to have a knack, Allen, for hiting the nail on the pet-peeve head, and I was happy to chime in.


  5. I wish we could get a female reader to comment on this. Do women even read this sort of book? I remember reviewing a thriller where the male detective is captured by a female serial killer and she tortures him, removing his kidney? He falls in love with her. (!) I believe there were at least two of these books. Anyone remember who writes this series or the names of any of the books?

    As an aside... after having read hundreds and hundreds of thrillers, I find that my memory of each one disappears about twenty minutes after finishing the review. I used to find this distressing, but now realize there's only so much room in my brain when applying the critical areas to a book. I have to clear that area each time, otherwise the plots, characters, etc. would get hopelessly muddled and I'd never be able to write the review.

    Or, my memory is just shot because I'm getting old.

  6. Dear Mr. Appel: Your photo scares me.

  7. Dear Bo, I'm sorry if the picture is an eensy bit scary, but it is what it is because I'm THE THRILLER GUY! If I was the Poems About Little Kittens Guy, or the How to Make Hot Mad Love to a Woman Guy, the picture would be different, wouldn't it?

    Actually, it's a photoshopped version of a much more gentle picture that can be see on my website, The photo, a 4x5 Polaroid, was taken by my daughter Leah Appel who is a professional photographer. Her excellent work can be seen at

  8. I think it's kind of funny when you look at the dust jacket of an author and read the fine print of the author photo credits and see something dated from a decade or two ago. Hey, I know, I'll put a 1986 photo on my Google profile.

    Allen you can always your Allen As An Angry Young Man photo. :)

  9. I'm not really angry, just sometimes annoyed. Also, not really young.

    Allen as an Annoyed Old Man.

  10. Allen, I believe you are thinking of Chelsea Cain, author of several books about a sadistic mutilating female serial killer. One of them (the only one I read, I think) was called ``Heartsick.'' My recollection is that she really cuts up our detective hero and he is turned on by her....(I dont recall that he actually falls in love with her, but there definitely is some serious sexual tension between the two of them. On her part too, if I'm remembering this correctly.)

    Allen asked about the taste of female readers. I'm one, and I go for the gruesome stuff, as long as it's not gruesome-for-gruesom's-sake. (Did that make sense?) For that matter, consider that women thriller writers (Val McDermid comes to mind) can be just as gruesome as the guys. McDermid can get pretty graphic against women in her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series of books (In the ``The Wire in the Blood,'' for eg., the book, not the BBC TV series, a young woman police officer gets killed off in a most barbaric way) and other women writers have no qualms knocking off women. The most shocking murder in my recent memory was that of Helen Clyde Lynley, wife of Thomas Lynley (the hero of Elizabeth George's British detective series, in a totally random senseless shooting. Most of George's fans (me among them) were outraged and heartbroken!!! The writer, when asked about it, said (I am paraphrasing big time) that she just wanted to shake things up a bit! Indeed.

  11. I forgot to add that Lady Helen was *pregnant* when she got shot, and she didn't die right away: Lynley had to decide to pull the plug. So George killed her -- and their unborn child -- in a most prolonged, agonizing way.

  12. You asked for a female readers comment, so here goes. I have read some books where the female character is easily cut down or killed, and I felt like it was a big let down, I could see it coming, and I knew what was going to happen and it didn't inspire me to enjoy the book. But I rarely read books like that, and as a female, I generally select books with strong female leads, and even if the female lead is weak, or a victim of injustice, rape, etc - her rise from the ashes, seeing her triumph over the horror, is very satisfying, to see her stand up for herself, gain strength, the victim becomes the heroine. I think that books like that give women hope if they are ever hurt or abused they can rise from the ashes like a phoenix. I remember reading a book about a woman who was horribly abused by her husband. But all the while she was abused, she was doing little things to plan her eventual escape, start a new life, and when she was strong, and by then the character had grown to be able to defend herself when he eventually caught up to her. (Not the movie Sleeping with the Enemy, can't remember the book title).

    I would never enjoy or want to read a book where women are just categorically abused and maligned and treated as less than an animal. I doubt many women would read an author that would continue to render woman helpless and weak. Even many male readers have wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters - I can't see them getting much out of it either.

    Is that what you were looking for?

  13. And Mr. Appel, I appreciate your consideration in seeking a woman's viewpoint on the matter. Down with the Psycho Author's who enjoy hurting women. Like society needs any more encouragement!