It all starts so innocently. Isn't that always the way? I read a guest blog post by JanetNorCal at Miss Bates Reads Romance on Charlotte Lamb's Violation, and I wondered how I'd missed reading any of her books. I made a note to investigate further and put it aside to finish my current book. Then two things happened: I finished my current book and a friend sent me a copy of Hot Love and Dark Dominion. I was looking for something new and fresh so I began to read Hot Love. Two days later I'd devoured both books quicker than a hot knife slices through butter and was scouring Amazon for more Charlotte Lamb HPs. When I'd exhausted that avenue, I scurried off to eBay. Oh eBay, how do I love thee? I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my wallet can stretch. True confession: I reached DEFCON 4 stage in my quest for more Lambs when I attempted to outbid myself on eBay for a "lot of 25 vintage Charlotte Lamb books." Sadly, someone else outbid me and my alternate self as well. But I didn't let one failure and total loss of dignity stop me. I am now the proud owner of 41 Lamb HPs, including the one I'm reviewing: Stranger In The Night.
Stranger In The Night, published in 1981, (and dammit! I really want to sing "doo-be-doo-be-doo" every time I see this title!!) is a good example of why I find Charlotte Lamb's books so compelling. Compelling in the way she takes a so-called simple and humble category romance and packs a whole lotta story into a scant 187 pages. Compelling in the way she pushes the limitations and expectations of the genre, giving it a good shake and a smart slap. (Hmm. Reminds me of most of her alpha heroes.) Compelling in her spare but efficient characterization, some beautifully crafted descriptions, and drama with a capital D. I open a Charlotte Lamb book, and I know it will be a wild ride.
What surprised me was my uncertainty for a time of just which man - Luke Murry or Macey Janson - was the intended hero. When Clare meets Luke, he's charming, handsome, attentive, teasing. There's palpable attraction and definite chemistry between Clare and Luke. Plus, Luke fit nicely into the mold of most Lamb heroes — much older, wealthy, powerful, with the trademark mocking smile and arrogance.
She had never met anyone like him in her life and her heart had begun to beat rather alarmingly. He was not only outside her income bracket; he was out of her age group, too, she realised. It was hard to tell in the muted light, but she suspected he was much closer to thirty than twenty, and his sophistication was genuine, unlike her own imitated variety. (10)
He checks all the boxes. Except one. He's the man who rapes Clare. By the end of Chapter One, I couldn't envision a path to redemption for Luke. Except maybe if Luke had a brain tumor which caused him to behave like a shit. Or if Luke had an identical evil twin who went around assaulting naive young women at parties. Or if Luke had a doppelgänger. Hey, it could happen in a Charlotte Lamb book. I read one recently in which the hero "dies" in a fiery car crash only to be resurrected, so to speak, after plastic surgery, looking exactly like his best friend. Oh and there's amnesia and a bee sting involved in tying up those loose ends. As I said, it's always a wild ride.
It's important that I add a gentle word of warning. Um, yes. About that "rough lovemaking" on the back blurb? What we have here is a failure to communicate. "Rough lovemaking" is not the same as rape, and Clare's encounter with Luke is rape, and though it is painful to read, I felt Charlotte Lamb captured the horror, the pain, the humiliation, the guilt, the shame and the repercussions of so many date rape victims exactly. If you can get past Chapter One, the rest is surprisingly good with only a few exceptions.
Clare doesn't allow the rape to kill off all her dreams, however. She wants to be an actress and arrived at the New Year's party "a rather young eighteen, straight up from the country, her big green eyes still wide and innocent" half in love with a man she knew only as "Luke", but leaves older and wiser and colder. Controlled. Determined never to trust again. She picks herself up, shakes off the "romantic folly which had led her into that bedroom" and builds great protective walls around her heart and pours all her energy into learning her craft and her emotion into various parts she plays. Nine years later, Clare is a successful actress, "cool, clear-headed and ambitious", but still as closed off emotionally in her personal life as she was at eighteen.
The one constant in Clare's life for the past seven years is Macey Janson, Clare's best friend. They met while Clare was in her final year of drama school, and he was just beginning to break into playwriting. Their first meeting is a bit too confrontational and uncomfortable for Clare. Macey "buttonholes" her to critique her performance, and his bold assertiveness and in-your-face attitude resurrects "memories which still had the power to make her hair bristle on the back of her neck", his aggressiveness a mild echoing of Luke's. But she quickly realizes Macey's intentions are not threatening, his interest in her performance is genuine, and his suggestion valid. Their friendship was one thing I loved without qualification about this book. I found it charming and a breath of fresh air to read of their "scratch suppers", eating "egg and chips in cheap cafés under London's bridges."
Macey, of course, is a brilliantly successful playwright who, no matter where his career has taken him, always "found her, wherever she was." Macey had affairs, short-lived flings, but no one lasted long. You might think Macey is a little in love with Clare, and you'd be right. Unrequited, of course. Oh, he made moves during that first year, but Clare was only interested in friendship. Just breaks my heart when your heart's desire only wants to be friends, but it's one trope I love above others. All the pining. The angst. The tension. The "Will they? Or won't they? uncertainty. And if they do, what then? I'm just a sucker for the "love, unrequited" that "robs me of my rest", "love, hopeless love." Like Olivia and Orsino. Like Cyrano and Roxanne. Like Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown. Like Pepe LePew and. . .Yes, well.
And it's clear that, though he respects her boundaries, he's patiently waiting for a hint that she feels differently. As here, when Clare tells Macey a box office superstar hottie's breath stank of garlic:
"'You acid little realist, are there no stars in your eyes?'
She had opened her huge, glimmering green eyes at him. 'You tell me!'
Macey had leaned closer, looking down into them. His hands had come up and caught her shoulders and Clare had felt an odd flicker of alarm at something in his eyes, then he had drawn back, smiling wryly. 'No,' he had agreed. 'Not a twinkle.' (31)
And this one:
Clare laughed. 'What makes a five-star hotel different?'
'The men have usually learnt not to grab what they fancy,' Macey drawled. 'I don't say the place won't be crawling with men who'll fancy you on sight, but that would apply wherever I took you. It can get very wearing.'
She opened her eyes. 'What can?'
Macey stared ahead, his profile uninformative. 'Watching men watching you.' (126)
I may just be a teeny bit in love with Macey Janson. He is definitely in the "alpha minor" category. Yes, he has that mocking gleam in his eye every now and then, and his mouth is stamped with "sardonic amusement" a time or two. His blue eyes can be cold, "hard and enigmatic", his jaw "tightens" implacably, and his tone can be curt and as sharp as a "whiplash." He's territorial and definitely more tiger than pussy cat, but I don't think he thumps his chest in a show of aggression all day. Well, maybe some times. And yes, he does call Clare a "bitch" a few times and he's not the most patient, understanding man when sexual frustration and jealousy are riding him hard. Clare smacks the day lights out of him once, and his fists clinch to keep them from striking her back. He wanted to hit her. I feel sure he thought about it, but he didn't.
But, he can be very patient with Clare, very supportive, very protective, and he gives her time to come to terms with confronting her rapist again and her changing awareness of him. That's not to say he doesn't act like a jealous ass at times. He does. But comparatively speaking, Macey is not in the same league with another Lamb "hero" who made my head explode when he admits how much satisfaction he gets from hurting the "heroine." Plus, Macey's been in love with her for years. He can't imagine her not in his life, and his acceptance of Clare in any capacity in his life is just very sweet, endearing and touching. It makes up for some of his less than stellar moments after Clare banishes Luke forever. Also, he's a man who definitely understands and respects that one tiny two-letter word: N-O.
These two give good banter while they dance around each other. They're comfortable with each other, and there's an indisputable, palpable closeness and bond despite Clare's inability to see Macey as a man which really adds to the growing tension. When Luke reappears and Macey is tormented with jealousy, their exchanges reminded me of those old Tracy/Hepburn battle of words:
"She did not want to talk about Luke Murry again. 'What did you say to Rowena?' she asked.
'Damn Rowena,' Macey muttered. 'You are in love with Murry, aren't you Clare?'
'I hate him,' she said fiercely.
'Hate me like that,' Macey came back with a bitter smile. 'Look at me the way you look at him.'" (103-104)
As close as they are, Clare has never been able to talk about that party and what happened to her nine years ago. Especially with Macey. It's not only that her silence is one way she copes, but she also fears Macey's respect and affection will turn to contempt and disgust if he were to hear exactly what occurred. He has suspicions, but he needs to know. His gentle insistence and the deleterious effect of not knowing exactly why Luke has an effect on Clare finally persuades her to confide in him.
"'We danced and talked, and then he suggested we find a quieter party.'
Macey stiffened. She felt the involuntary movement but didn't look up.
'I was too dumb to understand what he meant, and I went along with him.'
Macey said something under his breath. She didn't catch it, but it sounded violent.
Clare looked into her glass. It was empty. She twisted it in her cold hands.
'Do I have to fill in the gaps?'
'No,' Macey said harshly. 'I think I'd already guessed at most of it. I hoped I was wrong.'
(...) There was silence for a moment, then Macey said: 'He hurt you.'
She laughed shortly. 'That's an understatement!'" (112)
Clare was expecting him to look at her differently afterwards, but Macey offers her only compassion, kindness and understanding.
"'You didn't expect it to make a difference to how I feel about you?'
Her silence answered him. After a pause he said huskily, 'Not a chance, darling. I'm totally hooked on you. Don't you know that? If you had loved Murry and had the faintest chance of being happy with him, I'd have stood aside and let him have you, even though it would have killed me to do it. But knowing what that swine did to you doesn't make me feel differently about you. Him I'd like to cut into a thousand pieces, but you! How could you think for one moment that it would matter a damn to me, except to make me wish I could have prevented it?'" (115)
Luke attempts to blackmail, coerce, and threaten Clare once he reappears in her life. She is understandably terrified of him, but her gradual awakening to Macey as a man, not just a platonic friend, and her emotional healing, helps her to stand up to Luke, call his bluff. When he attempts to use her silence as a way to rape her into submission to him again, it backfires.
"'We have to talk.'
'We've got nothing to talk about', Clare told him, voice rising.
'Maybe I should talk to Janson.'
She stiffened, reading the deliberate note in his voice. 'Blackmail?' She looked at him with biting contempt. 'Get lost! The only thing that will happen if you tell Macey anything is that he'll smash you into the middle of next week.' Her green eyes lashed him. 'You're scared stiff of him. Do you think I didn't notice? You're very brave when it comes to pushing women around, but Macey is out of your class.'" (108-109)
Luke, like the rat bastard he is, tucks his tail between his legs and runs. It wasn't a BIG DRAMA moment, but it's powerful for the underlying message. Clare is not hiding anymore, buster! It's the moment when Clare takes her life back.
I found the duality in the title of this book — Stranger In The Night — fascinating. Of course it's a reference to Luke nine years ago, the man who felt instantly familiar but became a "stranger." But it also describes the "stranger" Macey becomes as Clare begins to feel the first stirrings of desire for the man who has only ever been so very comfortable, familiar and safe. Clare has to reconcile and sort out her conflicting and rapidly evolving feelings for Macey before intimacy between them progresses. Above all, I loved Macey's unflagging desire to have Clare in his life no matter the cost to him. There's a selflessness there that really speaks of the strongest, most enduring kind of love. A till death us do part kind of love.
"'Do you know, I had a little game I used to play with myself when I was aching for you. I'd promise myself little rewards for work. If I finished a particular scene that day I'd let myself ring you. It got to be quite a habit and it kept me working when I was worn out. I'll have to think up some new scheme if I can see you all the time.'
'We'll work on that together.'" (186)
Clare and Macey and a happy ever after? Oh yeah! I believe it! Charlotte Lamb, I love you for writing this book.