Gamblers Anonymous: Romance’s Sweet and Sexy Take on the Underworld
I was reading Cecilia Grant’s blurb for her June 2012 book and the blurb makes it clear that the story is about gambling. Gambling plots have a long history in romance and in popular culture. Card playing is not viewed as a vice but rather an activity at which any decent hero of distinction excels (much like swiving).
I’m not sure what about gamblers are so attractive, but mobsters have long held a place of romanticism in the public eye. It may be based on the concept of family, wealth, or even violence.
The first gambler romance that I can recall is Lisa Kleypas’ famous “Dreaming With You” originally published in 1994. Derek Craven owns London’s most exclusive gambling den. He falls in love with authoress Sara Fielding who came to London to research gambling dens for her next novel. Derek speaks in cant or some version of mangled English that the lower classes apparently spoke in the Regency time period. The book is filled with gentle humor and a sweet romance but it is, amongst other things, a beauty and the beast story. While Sara is not considered beautiful to most people, to Derek she is the finest thing that has ever crossed his threshold and he doesn’t believe that he is worthy to lay a single finger on her being let alone be allowed to love her.
Kleypas revisits the gambling club scene in her 2009 book “Devil in Winter” with the heroine being the daughter of Ivo Jenner, an infamous underworld figure.
The next few months include a number of gambling set books. Anne Mallory’s “In Total Surrender” is the second of a duology featuring a pair of men who own a gambling den. (The first is reviewed here) In Total Surrender is billed as a dark romance primarily because of the tortured hero who is constantly being stalked by assassins.
There are common themes that run amongst the gambling stories: a loyal crowd of retainers, usually comprised of gruff old men and young boys pulled off the street; a tortured past for the hero; and a saintly female. One of the books that goes agains the grain is Suzanne Enoch’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes“. (This title has nothing to do with the book. In fact, I wondered if it was intended for a different book and got stuck on this book in some marketing papers and that was the end of it). The heroine in Enoch’s book is opening an exclusive subscription gambling club because she is broke and she doesn’t want to marry again. Through trickery and blackmail she gets an old lover to stake her and train her girls. Her house becomes an accidental haven for well bred girls and not so well bred girls who are attempting to live on their own. As the house gains in popularity and financial success, the heroine’s former brother in law comes to challenge her claim. (This is the weakest part of the book).
I think one of the challenges featuring a BAD MAN as the hero is that so rarely do you ever see the gamblers and thieves doing anything bad. You don’t rise to the top of the criminal pile by being super good. You do it by being too dangerous to cross.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s November book, “Scandalous Desires“, features a river pirate as a hero. Not quite the gambler hero but of the same cloth. He grew up poor and used criminal means to gain power and fortune. The hero, Charming Mickey O’Connor actually ruined the heroine, just because he could. He did it to show off his power and power meant everything to Mickey O’Connor. In fact, that was the crux of the conflict. The heroine, Silence, told him that what he did hurt innocent people like herself and her dead husband and in order for them to be together, Mickey O’Connor would have to give up that power.
Another popular pirate turned hero is Rhys from Meljean Brook’s “The Iron Duke“. We see him being plenty bad. After all, he takes, or at least tries to take, whatever he wants. He cares little about anyone except to those in his inner circle. The challenge for Mina, the heroine, is to make Rhys understand that life is not about just taking what he desires.
All these gambling, criminal underworld elements make me wonder about the trade class. Why so few books about them? We can have courtesans, gamblers, pirates, spies but people who own businesses, are in trade, seem to be missing. The last one that I can recall would be the hero in Evangeline Collins’ “Seven Nights to Forever.” The hero was a wealthy merchant.
The conclusion I’ve drawn (maybe incorrectly) is that gamblers and pirates and other criminals are viewed as rogues to be redeemed and wealthy merchants are boring. Maybe after decades of books telling us that people who earn money legitimately “stink of the trade” and thus aren’t good enough (or bad enough) to be leading characters. I guess that would be one more thing to blame Georgette Heyer for?
What does the readership think? Are you anxious to read stories about the merchant class? Do you feel like there isn’t enough drama, conflict, excitement in books about those types of people? What makes the underclass sexy for you? Or is it just one author (Kleypas) popularizing a trope for the entirety of the genre?