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Individualism Meets Pulp Fiction

Individualism Meets Pulp Fiction

Lou Villadsen

8 Mins
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September 8, 2010

Winter 2005 -- I don’t watch TV—we’ve lived more than fifteen years without cable—and I’m not a big fan of film. My personal escape is fiction, especially romantic suspense—the sub-genre where romance novels meet mysteries. And one reason I find them so appealing is that many of the most popular romantic suspense writers build their stories on strongly individualist characters and themes.

Take the “In Death” series of novels by best-selling author J.D. Robb, which mixes police procedural, romance, and future history. It’s called that because all of the titles in the series are (Something) In Death. The first was Naked in Death; the newest, due out in July 2006, is Born in Death. The heroine, Eve Dallas, is a homicide detective with the New York Police and Security Department. She is committed passionately to both law and order. The hero—serendipitously named Roarke (he has no last name)—is a billionaire-businessman who began his life as a thief, smuggler, and purveyor of games of chance, but who now finds honest business much more challenging. He retains a willingness to step outside the law and circumvent the rules—but only, of course, to thwart evil.

Now, the heroine/cop is a pretty standard character, though this one has a distinctive personality. The hero/businessman, however, is something rare and special, especially for individualists and believers in capitalism. Roarke made his money by being very, very smart and by working very, very hard. We forgive him for being a thief in his youth because he’s gorgeous and sexy; anyway, he gave up crime years ago. He enjoys being rich; he enjoys the creative process of making money; and he is very much his own man, with a strong sense of his own worth and of the importance of being true to his own values.

Don’t tell my husband, but I could easily fall in love with Roarke.

PUSHING PRIVATIZATION?

In Divided in Death, the seventeenth installment in the series, we have the Homeland Security Organization (HSO), a covert federal antiterrorist agency, facing off against one of Roarke’s companies in order to develop a sophisticated computer system that will be used to thwart terrorists. The year is 2059, the place is New York City. A man and woman are found together in bed, stabbed to death. Under all the twists and turns and sub-plots lies the real reason for their killings: the HSO will use whatever means necessary to stop Roarke’s private company from completing a contract to build a new shield against computer terrorists. Why? Because, as one character explains, “Privatization of this kind of work put the squeeze on the budget of some of these agencies.”

Wow, I thought: privatization has really made it now. You know that a concept has moved beyond the Beltway and think tanks when it’s used as a critical plot-device in a New York Times best-seller that has absolutely no ideological pretext.
Yet here, the anti-privatizers are the villains. Roarke explains:

“This is the HSO. The antiterrorist organization that employs methods every bit as dirty as the terrorists they were initially formed to seek out and destroy...”

During the early days of the Urban Wars, the government had formed the HSO as a way to protect the country, to police the streets and gather intel covertly from radical factions. It had done the job. It had been necessary. And over the years since, some said it had morphed into something closer to a legalized terrorist group than a protection and intel operation...

[Roarke continues] “HSO would have wanted the contract themselves. Privatization of this kind of work put the squeeze on the budget of some of these agencies... A legitimate corporation has a viable government contract to develop a program to block the alleged plans of a techno-terrorist organization. If the HSO has attempted to hamper the research and development currently underway at the company, that isn’t a matter of national or global security. It’s dangerous and self-aggrandizing corporate espionage.…

“Corporate espionage on one hand—a lucrative game, and with so much privatization of intel- and data-gathering sources over the last couple of decades, the HSO has to compete with civilian companies for revenue.”

THE GOOD GUYS WIN

Besides the In Death series, Robb has written a mountain of novels under her own name, Nora Roberts. Roberts is one of the most prolific writers in the romance/romantic suspense genres, and her books, often trilogies, can be repetitious if you read too many back-to-back. Still, all of them involve making hard choices, and taking responsibility for those decisions.

For example, the villain in a recent “find it on the book rack at the grocery store” potboiler, Chesapeake Bay, is a woman who simply will not accept responsibility for her own actions. By contrast, the heroes, both men and women, stand together to make sure that virtue triumphs. Their loyalty to each other, their willingness to work as a team, are qualities that prove essential to their victory.

Virtue triumphs. That’s one of the reasons I like romance and romantic suspense (and why I’m a bit leery of mysteries. A one-time favorite mystery writer once killed off the hero of her multi-book series. I tossed out the whole series and haven’t bought anything with her name on it since.) One of the “rules” of romance writing is that love and virtue must triumph. In traditional romance novels, the ones with the lurid covers, boy and girl must marry—and usually get pregnant, or be actively trying—by the end of the book. In more grown-up romance novels, boy and girl will be with the right partner at the end of the book; but marriage isn’t always required, and the marriage won’t be all sunlight and joy.

Several traditional romance writers have made the jump into romantic suspense—I suspect because it’s more interesting for them to combine the character development and romance with whodunit plots. It certainly makes more interesting reading.

HEROES IN BUSINESS SUITS

In addition to J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts, there’s Jayne Ann Krentz, whose characters face moral dilemmas with courage and individual strength. She’s gotten a bit too much into characters with odd psychic powers for my personal comfort; but fiction requires a willing suspension of disbelief, so I still buy her books. Krentz also writes under the name Jayne Castle when she mixes romance, mystery, and future history. In her Harmony and St. Helens books, various psychic powers have evolved among humans who have emigrated to another planet—but this is science fiction, after all. (Krentz also writes historical romances under the name Amanda Quick, but I don’t read those.)

On the plus side, Krentz’s heroes are almost always businessmen. These men have flaws, but are always strong, honest, hard-working, and creative. Their businesses run the gamut from venture capital to industrial fasteners to retail. Krentz acknowledges them as heroes because they’ve created something of value.

In Dawn in Eclipse Bay (the third book in a trilogy), heroine Lillian Hart has given up her successful business as a wedding planner to put her energy into becoming a successful artist. Commercial success is important to her: art is about communicating with the viewer, and a successful artist has done that job well enough that the viewer chooses to buy the painting. The hero, Gabe Madison, is a commercial property developer who, of course, dislikes artists in general. But he’s drawn to Lillian—as she is to him:

    “Not everyone is cut out to work in a large corporation. But not everyone is cut out to run one, either. You were born to it, weren’t you, Gabe? You’ve got the natural talent for leadership and command that it takes to organize people and resources to achieve an objective. In your own way, you’re an artist. You can make folks see your objective, make them want to get there with you…”

Lillian’s grandfather is a businessman like Gabe, one who built his company from nothing. He pushed his own son into taking over, but now it’s time for the third generation, and neither Lillian nor her siblings are interested:

    What the hell was the matter with everyone else in the family? Didn’t they understand that a company like Harte Investments was a work of art? It had required vision and sweat to bring it to life. It was the result of a lot of carefully calculated risks and farsighted strategies. It had heart. It had struggled and fought and survived in a jungle where other businesses, large and small, got eaten alive. And now, because none of his grandchildren had any interest in the company, it would be sold or swallowed up by some other, larger predator.

The capitalists populating Jayne Ann Krentz’s novels are unabashedly tough competitors, unabashedly self-centered individualists with strong moral codes. Only the weak break promises or fail to live up to commitments.

VENTURES AND ADVENTURES

Ann Maxwell, who now writes mostly as Elizabeth Lowell, is another favorite of mine. Her novels are filled with strong individuals of both sexes: all the good people are productive, creative, and sexy. The bad guys are clearly less attractive because they’re weak or amoral, if not evil; external beauty can’t overcome serious internal flaws.

The Elizabeth Lowell heroes are very successful financially because—no surprise here—they’re smart and hard-working. While her most recent book, Always Time To Die, is an exception, the most recent eight or ten have used art or gems as the central plot device. Lowell fills her books with facts: read Pearl Cove if you want to know about the international pearl trade, or The Color of Death if you prefer sapphires. She’s an amazing researcher. Just for fun, I’ve checked out random arcane facts about jewelry with a couple of appraisers I know—and she’s been right on target. Want to learn about how casinos operate? Read Running Scared. Oh yes—the sex scenes are exciting, too.

I first learned about Ann Maxwell/Elizabeth Lowell when I read a series of mysteries written by A.E. Maxwell (the husband-and-wife team Ann and Evan). Their Fiddler and Fiora series features a Travis McGee-type guy who drives around in a classic Cobra, doing good in his own retrograde way, and his former wife/current lover who happens to be one of the most successful venture capitalists in Southern California. (Of course, she’s also a tiny, gorgeous blonde.)
The Fiddler & Fiora books were brought to my attention by someone who noticed that the third book in the series, Gatsby’s Vineyard, included an important cameo role for Trader Joe’s, that wonderfully weird chain of discount food stores “run by a guy who is a flat-out Libertarian, a political/philosophical party that is not to be confused with civil libertarianism. Joe is a free marketeer, one of those entrepreneurs willing to gamble on his own taste and his own ability to turn a profit…”

I lived in L.A. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and every word of every description is as accurate as fiction allows, which is one reason I love them. I don’t have to worry about “learning” something that’s false-to-fact while I’m enjoying the action. Sadly, these books are out of print, but (ten cheers for the market!) they’re available used from the various dealers selling through Amazon.com.

SEXY, RICH…AND MORAL

Then there’s Melanie Craft. Back in February 2004, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the front page about Craft, who married writer Larry Ellison and used many of his personality traits in creating the hero of her novel Trust Me. One point she emphasizes in the novel is that women think successful men are sexy. Her heroine also knows that strength, intelligence, and drive are not enough. She tells the hero:

    “Compassion and optimism aren’t luxuries. They’re hard work. Everyone has to make choices about how to live, and if those qualities are part of my life, it’s because I try to keep them there, not because I’ve been sheltered from harsh reality. Optimism is a choice, and you have to choose it, or you might as well just quit.”

How could I not like these books?  How can I not want to share my delight that millions of people—mostly women—are being exposed to these fictional celebrations of individualism and capitalism? They absorb free market ideals without effort, because they’re presented as background to compelling (okay, escapist) fiction.

Like John Stossel’s TV special Greed, these wildly popular works of fiction pay tribute to the virtues of entrepreneurship, creativity, and ambition, but do so in a low-key, romanticized way that makes them easy to understand and accept. It’s important to remember that most people have never met a successful entrepreneur, have absolutely no idea of how difficult it is to manage a large organization, have never known the excitement of bringing a creative vision to life.
That’s why romantic suspense novels serve as an important counterweight to the anti-capitalist, anti-individualist propaganda spread by most of the media and by Hollywood, which tirelessly recycle plots in which capitalism is evil, and business people are morally bankrupt predators.

Okay, these books may be “potato chips for the mind.” But unlike potato chips, they’re full of healthful and nutritious ideas.

And nobody ever got fat by reading a book.