REVIEW: Blue Smoke by Nora Roberts
I Bring You Fire – Blue Smoke by Nora Roberts
Blue Smoke was my first foray into the world of Romantic Suspense, and it threw me a bit of a curve ball. I’ve said before that reading genre fiction is, in part, a process of habituation. You gradually get used to certain signs, signifiers and conventions which allow you to get – for want of a better term – on the same page as the author. And until you do get used to the conventions of a genre, you tend to spend a lot of time saying things like “why are there twenty made up words in the first paragraph of this book about spaceships?” or “why has nothing been resolved three pages from the end of this book about wizards?”.
I’ve been doing the Romance Thing on DA for a good few months now and I’m slowly getting used to some of the major conventions of the genre – I’m a lot less thrown now when random dudes start fixating on women they’ve hardly met, or when a completely ordinary guy with a white collar job takes his shirt off to reveal perfectly sculpted abs and biceps thicker than my waist (I mean, I’m not confused when it happens in a book I’m reading – I’d be pretty confused if it happened, like, at work or something). And I’ve always been familiar with the conventions of secondary-world fiction, so paranormals and the like have always been fairly easy for me to get my head around.
But I don’t read thrillers. Okay, I tell a lie, I think I’ve read two in my life, and one of those was a Dan Brown. This meant that Blue Smoke was, for me, a mashup of tropes from two different genres neither of which I’m really familiar with.
As always, this is a discussion as much as a review, so we’re about to set sail on the good ship spoiler. And again I should probably say that since this is, y’know, suspense that spoilers might make quite a big difference to your reading.
One of the things I’d got used to in my romance reading thus far was the central relationship being set up early – in most of the books I’ve read the hero and heroine have met by chapter three at the latest. I was a bit disconcerted, therefore, when I found myself 10% of the way into Blue Smoke and the heroine had not only failed to meet the hero, but had also failed to get past the age of eleven. Nearly the whole first half of the book was set five years or more before the “present day” of the story, setting up the heroine’s background, her circumstances, and her relationships with her family, with men, and with fire. I should stress that this isn’t a criticism – I understand why this stuff needed to be established – it’s just very much not the kind of structure I was used to seeing from the genre.
Anyway, our heroine is Reena Hale – an Irish-Italian-American arson investigator, who chose her career at the age of eleven when her parents’ pizza restaurant was burned down by an irate neighbour. A tiny, pedantic part of me is a little tired of trauma-induced-career-choice as a trope, on grounds of plausibility if nothing else. I might be completely misinformed here, but I understand that most degree programs really don’t want to be told that you’re only studying the subject because you were in some way personally affected by it. When Reena is eighteen a mysterious pyromaniacal psychopath burns her boyfriend to death, making it look like an accident, and when she’s twenty-something the same psychopath murders her next boyfriend and lights up the body. In her late twenties, the psycho visits her again just as she’s breaking up with an abusive, controlling asshole – this time torching said asshole’s car and trying to pin it on Reena.
This picaresque tour of Reena’s fire-damaged love-life is interspersed with scenes from the viewpoint of our hero Bo who, having seen Reena for literally seconds across a crowded party in 1992 has been fantasising about her ever since. It is, I think, testimony to the quality of the book and the handling of Bo’s character that this does not make him come across as an irredeemable nutcase. The action finally catches up with the present day (2005) when Reena buys a house that just happens to be next door to Bo, and at exactly the same time the mysterious psychopath comes back to burn everything the hell to the ground.
As I have already intimated, I made some basic genre errors reading Blue Smoke. My first mistake was assuming that it would start with an adult heroine and make her relationship with the hero the primary focus, rather than starting with the heroine at the age of eleven and making – in a way – her unwitting relationship with the villain (and with fire itself) the primary pillar of the narrative. My second mistake was reading the book as a mystery when it’s actually a thriller.
I should probably stress that I’m even more out of my depth talking about subgenres in Crime than I am talking about subgenres in Romance, so this may be complete nonsense. The distinction I’m trying to draw is between a story in which the primary narrative tension comes from uncertainty about what is happening and who is causing it (a mystery) and one in which the primary narrative tension comes from what is going to happen next (a thriller). Obviously subgenre conventions are a lot more complicated than that in real life (Hammett, for example, wrote stories in which it wasn’t clear what was happening, or what would happen next), but a defining feature of what I’m calling a “mystery” is the invitation to the reader to play along at home, to try to work out what the “answer” is before the protagonists do.
Because I read most of Blue Smoke as a mystery, I spent at least half of the book assuming that the misogynistic, Reena-obsessed serial killer was going to turn out not to be the transparently sociopathic kid from the first chapter who killed his own dog and left its burning corpse on Reena’s doorstep, because that would surely have been too obvious. Instead I managed to convince myself that he would turn out to be the kindly fire investigator who takes Reena under his wing at the start of the book. This meant that I spent about a quarter of the book fighting a kind of weird cognitive dissonance, as my thought process went something like this:
Hey, she’s mentioned that the kid over the road is staring at their burning restaurant with a crazy look in his eyes. That’s clearly a red herring. Hey, now the kid has left a burning dog corpse on her doorstep. Clearly another red herring. Hey, now somebody’s murdered her boyfriend but I am so clever that I have spotted the subtle clues – the killer was clearly somebody who looked respectable enough to get this guy to let his guard down, and he clearly knew about the way fires spread and the way they were investigated, so clearly it’s the fire-investigator guy. Okay, now she’s realised that somebody’s after her, okay, now she’s going over the possible suspects – and now she’s decided it’s probably psycho-dog-burning-kid which means we’re just about ready to set up for the big revelation that it isn’t. Which should be coming about now. Right about now. Hey, I’m kind of at the 90% mark here and she still thinks it’s the dog-burning-kid, it’s getting kind of late in the day for a major plot twist. Oh, she’s finally confronted the guy. Oh…
It probably says something about my tendency to overthink things that the most surprising plot twist I’ve encountered in a book this year was when the killer turned out to be the guy it was clearly set up to be from the start.
Despite my confusion, the suspense plot in Blue Smoke worked pretty well for me. The resident psychopath was sufficiently psychopathic that I kept reading to find out what he’d burn down next, and sufficiently horrible that I wanted to see him get his at the end. The romance plot felt a little secondary to me, but I’m not sure that was a problem in and of itself and I suspect that part of the reason it felt so secondary was that it was well enough integrated into the suspense plot that it didn’t intrude. Besides, when an evil madman is trying to burn everybody you care about to death your love life naturally takes a bit of a back seat.
The other thing I found a little surprising about Blue Smoke was how well I responded to its core ideas about family, despite their being rather more conservative than I’d usually find comfortable. A massive central theme of the book is the overwhelming importance of a very traditional marriage-and-kids based family life. The heroine’s family is basically the most important thing in her world, the villain’s raging psychosis is frequently shown to stem from his growing up in an unstable family (and being jealous of Reena’s perfect one), and while the hero did not come from a traditional nuclear family (I think he was raised by his grandparents or something, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten) he pretty much unreservedly accepts that Reena’s family is the ideal of which his fell short.
I think the reason I was okay with the book’s portrayal of family was that it seemed to be taking a close look at something specific, rather than a broad look at something general. I find these sorts of story problematic when they start promoting the traditional nuclear family at the expense of other, less common family structures (I was really annoyed when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince seemed to suggest that Voldemort grew up evil because his mother had the temerity to die in childbirth). Although Blue Smoke seems to take “husband, wife, and two or more kids” as its ideal family structure, it spends a lot of time exploring ways in which that structure can fall short of the ideal, and ways in which it can encompass a plurality of lifestyles and choices without necessarily sacrificing the basic idea of the traditional family unit.
So for example Reena puts her time and energy into her career but, once she meets Bo, it is pretty clear that she intends to settle down with him and have kids, and this isn’t shown as being incompatible or a compromise, just as being a different way in which she can have the same things that her brother and sisters have had. Conversely while the villain comes from a broken home, it isn’t a non-traditional broken home, he’s still got a mother and a father who are married – it’s just that his father is an abusive dickhead.
Perhaps most interestingly, Reena’s older sister Bella marries young (and to a much richer man) in a specific attempt to get the ideal fairytale wedding and (presumably) perfect family life. It all goes wrong and she winds up stuck in a loveless marriage with a guy who cheats on her. What I found interesting about this was that she resolves to stay with the guy, and that this is seen as a valid decision if not a hundred percent happy one. At the same time it didn’t seem like she was staying with him because divorce was unconscionable, just that she’d made a decision that – for her – a stable home with children she loved and a husband she didn’t was an acceptable situation, even if it wasn’t what she’d hoped for.
I’ve not said much so far about Bo (although I should probably mention that it took me a reasonable amount of time to get over the name). I feel a bit bad about this because he’s a lot better than many of the heroes I’ve read. Thirteen-year-crush aside, he’s basically a very ordinary person who has a nice straightforward healthy relationship with the heroine and doesn’t try to blackmail her or threaten her or rape her or any of the other dickish, controlling or outright criminal bullshit I’ve seen from the leading men in other books. Given the amount of facepalming I’ve done at alphole shitbuckets over the last few months, I was quite pleased to have a hero who just seemed to be a straight up decent guy – it’s just that because he was basically quite a nice person he didn’t really do much to drive the narrative.
Bo’s relationship with Reena is perfectly grown-up and sensible. They have a small fight because he gets worried about her doing dangerous things, but he never actually tries to stop her doing them. There’s even a scene where Reena sees him hugging a female friend, and then afterwards he’s like “oh my god it wasn’t what it looked like!” and she’s like “it’s okay, she was clearly your friend and she was clearly upset and I’m glad you looked out for her.” I wonder, incidentally, if this is something to do with the book being Romantic Suspense. Since there is a large external threat providing the main conflict in the narrative, there’s less need for the central romance to be an additional source of tension. As obstacles on the road to true love go “a pyromaniac from my childhood has literally murdered anybody I have ever been romantically involved with” is kind of hard to top anyway.
Everything I learned about life, love and arson from reading Blue Smoke: Waxed paper can be used to make effective trailers promoting the spread of fire throughout the target area. Just because you’ve seen a girl twice in thirteen years, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to work it out eventually. Air circulation is important for fires, so be certain to crack a window particularly if you’re torching a vehicle. Pizza joints are a great place to meet your future wife. Breaking a wall open will allow the fire to spread into the wall cavity, increasing structural damage to the building, the risk of collapse and the hazards faced by rescue personnel. Date a carpenter, they’re good with their hands.