Okay, the next time I say something like “I’m going to do 30 days of reviews of all-one title” like I did at the start of Avengers Month, remind me: just because I like writing about the Avengers right now, doesn’t mean I’m going to want to on day ten. That way you won’t get me trying to pass off the latest issue of Darkhold as an Avengers title, and I won’t get the nagging feeling of being constrained by a rule I myself set. Okay? Okay.
So, I’ve been wanting to write about today’s book for a few days now, and in a way being forced to wait has benefited its review: because the longer I waited, the more I seemed to like it.
The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook by Josie Brown exists in the same vein as the Stephanie Plum series: books about “professionals” that skate a certain edge of solid tone and good taste, wavering between the two from chapter to chapter. And let’s be clear: by “professionals” I do not mean bankers and marketing consultants. I mean assassins, bounty-hunters, and hit-men.
Reading the first chapter of this book I wanted to give it one star. Actually, I wanted to put it down, in a way I haven’t since Heartsick by Chelsea Cain, but I powered through anyway. By the second chapter it redeemed itself a little, and by chapter three it was a solid 3-star book. It wavered back and forth a little here and there, but for the most part the good evened out the bad and, well, here we are.
The problem with that first chapter — and do remember, this is how we are introduced to lead-character Donna Stone — is that we find her executing a hit on someone by posing as their sexual conquest, and ending up being whipped with a riding crop, spoken to in demeaning and overtly sexist sexual fashions, and basically dehumanized in every way you imagine someone in that situation would be. In chapter two we then move on from this and see Donna in her everyday setting, with her kids, and dealing with the loss of her husband.
Let’s ignore some things. Let’s ignore that that plot “female assassin the sleeps with you to get you in a vulnerable state before killing you” was the plot of almost every soft-core porno that used to come on City TV’s Baby Blues late-night lineup before the Internet changed pornography forever (don’t think too hard about how I know that). While we’re at it: let’s ignore that the language used here is exceptionally misogynistic. Because those things aren’t the problem.
The problem, is tone.
Because if I picked up this book and discovered that it was — the whole way through — some fantasy escapism about sexual pleasure… honestly, it might have gotten a higher grade. And I don’t mean to say that that’s what I was looking for, what I mean is: I still would have given the first chapter 1 star, then after a few chapters I would have realized “wait, no, this is what this book is about. This is the author’s intent.” and you can’t fault the book or the author for succeeding in their expectations, just because the genre isn’t what I would have normally read.
The problem is it jumps from this opening adventure in BDSM straight into a somber chapter revolving mostly around Donna’s backstory and how she’s dealing with the loss of her husband, and then continues down that road of the double life. It goes from X-Rated horribly-written sexual-fantasy schlock to Jason Bourne-style espionage to Stephanie Plum to Fifty Shades of Grey right back to X-Rated schlock. It’s all over the map in its tone, and that makes it read like a first draft.
I feel like, during editing, people told Brown: listen, this first chapter has to go. But she had sunk into the trap of falling in love with her first draft and wouldn’t let it go, and now we’re here with a tonally uneven first chapter in what is — from the looks of things — a decently successful series of paperback books.
I mentioned Fifty Shades above, because I feel like all this is a major symptom of the disease. And I don’t mean the text of Shades itself, I mean what it started. It was a major, major bestseller with a focus on sex and BDSM, and now every author that came out of reading that is influenced by it: and that’s fine, if you’re telling a story about BDSM culture and sexual awakening like EL James that’s fine: if you’re telling an otherwise-tame espionage story involving a housewife that doubles as an assassin, you may want to rethink that. Because dramatic shifts in tone kill good stories.