Sex and Death – A Rant
I recently finished reading Linda Howard’s Death Angel. This will not be a review, as I have no idea how to go about reviewing this book. If I were to judge on the usual criteria – plot, characterization, prose – it’d be maybe a B or a B-. But the story made an impression on me that surpassed what any mere letter grade could convey. I spent most of the book on a rollercoaster between kind of pissed off and really pissed off. After reading it, I fell into one of my periodic "why is the romance world so hostile to women’s sexuality?" funks.
Warning: I can’t say more without revealing big spoilers for Death Angel. Please do not continue reading this if you plan to read the book and don’t want to be spoiled.
Drea Rosseau is a gangster’s girlfriend and Simon is an assassin. They meet cute when Simon asks the gangster, Salinas, if he can have sex with Drea in lieu of payment for services rendered. Drea, after initially being horrified at the idea, fallz in the luv with Simon from the orgasms and all, which Salinas, being a boor (as well as a gangster, drug dealer and killer) has thus far failed to provide. She begs Simon to take her away, and he refuses, telling her, "once was enough." (Did I mention that this is the hero? And that he kills people for a living?)
So, Drea gets mad and runs away from Salinas, but not before stealing a bunch of money from him. Salinas sends Simon after her; not to retrieve the money, but to kill Drea. Simon tracks Drea with laughable ease (he’s your typical romance novel assassin/spy/Navy SEAL/what have you in that his abilities seem just a hair short of supernatural; he always knows just what the heroine is going to do and how to deal with it. Must be nice).
Drea gets into what turns out to be a fatal car accident while Simon is chasing her on a deserted road. She is understandably afraid that Simon intends to kill her, while Simon still isn’t sure what he plans to do, even as he tracks her to another state. But anyway, Drea crashes her car and dies. And goes to-some sort of heavenly waiting room? I’m not real clear on that part. Anyway, she is told (not unkindly) by the angels there that she doesn’t belong. Then one angel comes forward and says that he brought her there to give her a second chance – it turns out that he’s the son she gave birth to at 15 who died shortly after birth. He thinks Drea deserves a second chance, because as she lay bleeding and in labor, she prayed that her son would live instead of her. Drea had demonstrated the "purest" form of love, which apparently is mother-love (that would not have been my guess, but whatever). So the heavenly waiting room welcoming committee takes a vote, and Drea gets sent back to Earth, admonished to go and sin no more, lest she end up in The Other Place.
Okay, this is where this book seriously went off the rails for me. Drea has not shown herself to be a particularly admirable character, but Hell? She was really going to go to Hell? For being kind of lost and misguided and skanky?
Drea is a potentially interesting character. That she has had a hard life is implied but never really explained in detail. We know that she got pregnant at 15 and lost the baby at five months, having to get herself to the hospital because there was no one to take her. The implication certainly seems to be that she was at best neglected, and as a result, she has developed a tough exterior and has learned to do what she needs to get what she wants. While this is not admirable, I found it understandable, given what little we know of her background.
Drea thinks of herself thusly (after her accident and return from death):
But they had held her cheaply because she’d held herself cheaply. She couldn’t remember a time in her life when she’d ever held herself to a higher standard. Not once as an adult had she ever made a decision based on what was right, what she should do; instead, she had gone for whatever paid her the most, benefited her the most. That had been her only criterion. Maybe most people also used that as the basis of their decisions most of the time, but they also went out of their way to help friends, they sacrificed their own material needs to provide for their children, or their aged parents, or they gave to charity or something. She’d done none of that. She had looked out for Drea – first, last and always.
I can tell I’m not simpatico with an author when I feel more sympathetic to the character she’s created than the author herself seems to feel. Maybe it’s that Drea doesn’t seem that hard-bitten, and we’re not given enough information to really understand why she does what she does. I came to wonder if that was a deliberate choice on Howard’s part; it was like she didn’t want to make Drea too sympathetic. But my mind filled in the blanks from what little we are given about her upbringing, and I couldn’t help but feel that circumstances had made Drea the person she was. Which doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have reformed; but it does mean, for me at least, that if she had died unreformed, she wouldn’t deserve an eternity of torment being poked with pitchforks, etc.
Another hole in the portrait that Howard has created of Drea: she doesn’t seem to have been hugely ambitious, pre-embezzlement and death, which made me wonder what she was doing with such a dangerous character as Salinas, a man whom she has to play dumb around (she feels it’s safest that he not know she has a brain; that way he won’t ever feel threatened by her or worry about what she might overhear). Couldn’t she have just married a doctor, or something?
I will say that unlike Simon, Drea didn’t appear to be a complete sociopath, incapable of empathy, which puts her one up, in my books.
So, Simon. He kills people for a living; but it’s okay because as both Simon and Drea think several times, the people he killed deserved it. Glad they cleared that up. Simon is a sociopath, at least by the self-description afforded by his own thoughts. We are given even less motivation for why he lives life as he does, but we are told that he has never really cared about people:
He was what he was because no life, his own or anyone else’s, had ever meant anything special to him.
Alrighty, then. That’s not creepy at all.
I understand that the focus of this book was on Drea and her growth, but the respective characterizations of Drea and Simon, and the fact that Simon kills again at the end of the book (in cold blood, though to protect Drea) after both of them have supposedly repented, left me with the uncomfortable feeling that in Howard’s world, being a cold-blooded assassin wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as being the kept woman of a drug dealer. I was just really uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of these two characters, and how I felt we were supposed to view them.
Again, both Drea and Simon indulge in justification and rationalizations over Simon’s career choice. These justifications boil down to: the people Simon killed deserved killing. By whose criteria, I wonder? Anyway, in my opinion, the assassin who only kills people who deserve to be killed is sort of like the defense lawyer who only represents innocent clients: a myth found in books and movies, never in real life.
Which I suppose is what some will argue about this book: it’s not realistic, nor is it meant to be. Which, fine, but when you place these two characters on somewhat parallel journeys, it tends to highlight their similarities and differences. To summarize, for me as a reader:
- Simon was by far the worse person before they each reformed, and even though Simon “reforms” he still kills when he decides it’s necessary (making me wonder what his future body-count might look like).
- Simon is given less of a background that might mitigate his behavior.
- Simon manifests serious signs of sociopathy. Drea manifested simple garden-variety selfishness, which I found a lot more palatable (and believably reformable);
- Yet it’s Drea who gets told she’s ending up in Hell if she doesn’t change her ways. Simon’s reformation seems to be far less of an issue, and his decision to stop being an assassin (after he kills just one more person!) feels like it has less of a sense of moral urgency than Drea’s reformation.
- Both characters excuse Simon’s behavior but not Drea’s.
- Drea feels compelled to give the money she steals from Salinas to charity. There is no mention of what Simon plans to do with his blood money, but I have the feeling the United Way shouldn’t be expecting a big check any time soon. Simon earned that money! Killing people. It was totally hard work. What?
I think it’s a sign that the book wasn’t working for me that the one character who I felt had some depth of characterization, and who I could even kind of feel for a little, was Salinas. He is shown to be callous and cruel, but when Drea deceives him for a brief time into believing that she loves him (as part of her plot to run away) and is devastated by his turning her over to Simon, he actually reacts in a recognizable human way – he seems to feel remorse for how he’s treated Drea, and has a desire to examine their relationship. Of course, when he realizes she’s duped him, he wants to kill her, but – nobody’s perfect. A couple of times in the book Simon thinks about how much contempt he has for Salinas, and I just couldn’t help but wonder – why? Why were we supposed to root for Simon and disdain Salinas? I just didn’t get it, and it made me kind of resentful, actually.
Lessons learned: prostituting yourself, stealing, driving over the speed limit, not returning library books in a timely manner and killing people for a living are all bad things, but only one if them is worthy of getting sent to hell. Wanna guess which one? If you said not returning library books, you’re totally wrong. Silly, it’s being a whore, of course!