June 22nd, 2014

_Tell Me No Lies_, Elizabeth Lowell

My sister recommended this after I reviewed _Shadow Woman_, as better romantic suspense albeit dated. I haven't read Elizabeth Lowell novels for a long while, probably the early 2000s. I think I read the Donovan series (_Pearl Cove_, etc.). As near as I can tell from the author website, _Tell Me No Lies_ was a paperback original in 1986, reissued in hardcover in 2001. A mid-1980s date is compatible with the internals of the text. Unlike some reprints of Jayne Ann Krentz works from a comparable time period, no efforts have been made to deal with the massive technological changes that have occurred since the original writing/publication. Thus, making calls from pay phones using coins is a crucial plot element, and the only cell phone to make an appearance fills a briefcase.


The plot, while complex, is straight out of the 1980s. Young career woman (early 30s) with a failed starter marriage in her past has devoted herself entirely to her work, in this case, she works at a museum and as a consultant authenticating Chinese bronzes. Lindsay Danner was an only child and recently her American missionary to China mother died. Lindsay was born and grew up for several years in China (her dad also a missionary, altho he was from Canada). Lowell handwaves around the problem of the dates; Danner's childhood would make a lot more sense if she were born ten years earlier. She has nightmares which have returned since her mother died, involving a mostly forgotten childhood event when she saw someone die.

Catlin (who has a first and middle name), formerly dba as Rousseau in Indochina, is "hired" by Chen Yi to protect Lindsay Danner. The hiring is somewhat coercive, in that Chen is calling in an old debt that Catlin/Rousseau owed someone who saved him from his own bad judgment (and at the cost of his savior's life). Rousseau, at the time, was a deep cover CIA agent.

Brad Stone, FBI counter espionage guy, leans on Danner's boss at the museum to get her to participate in an undercover operation. Her role is to be a credible authenticator of a Chinese bronze charioteer that may or may not exist and may or may not have been smuggled from China to the US. If it does exist and is real, it is a crucial element of a series of plots, and Stone in particular is worried that significant damage might be done to the then-blossoming trade relationship between the PRC and the US.

There's a whole morass of additional elements to the plot: the guy who hired the hit on Catlin shows up, an old friend of the Danner family gets involved, there are layers of double agents and blah blah bleeping blah. But the major plot elements are pretty much the three people above, and a whole lot of people machinating around the bronzes. The suspense of the book does not actually involve a lot of danger: there are no chase scenes (beyond the FBI setting up surveillance nets and so forth, which hardly count). There are no gun battles. There's a little bit of kung fu fighting, which Lowell persists in calling karate, which makes approximately zero sense, possibly negative sense. (There is one way it might make sense, if Catlin really did learn it from the CIA guys, maybe in Japan? But why? And why would anyone stick to that, if they were spending a bunch of time in Vietnam and trying to fit in there?) There's a little bit of looking for bugs and car bombs and dealing with them, but it is very much in the background. The suspense derives instead from the emotional and psychic pressure on Lindsay Danner as she acts the part of a woman of integrity who is so in love with a Bad Guy that she is willing to give up on her morality/integrity/ethics/professionalism/wtf.

It's totally not believable. Lowell writes it _beautifully_, but I was unable to believe it. At all. If it freaks you out that much to have the people around you Think Bad Things Of You, then you actually are not a person of integrity. You are a person who is a complete tool, concerned only with the thoughts and opinions of others. Yeah, no. It might have worked a bit better if it were presented more explicitly as a cultural conflict, but it really and truly wasn't. It might have worked a bit better if it were presented more explicitly as a levels of loyalty conflict (loyalty to profession vs. patriotism). Lowell did actually do a nice job of presenting Lindsay as a kind of aspie-level Can't Tolerate the Lying person. That I believed.

In general, I don't like this kind of wheels within wheels plotting, because I just don't really believe that anything that convoluted happens in the real world. Or, if it does, any reality based person who encounters it should run away. No matter how much the participants believe in this kind of crap, no one outside the inner circles knows or cares, but a participant nutty enough to believe in this is nutty enough to do all kinds of random shit and there's no point in sticking around to get caught in the crossfire.

That said, Lindsay Danner turned out to have some seriously awesome instincts. While not drawn to this game for the usual reasons (Fun! Which I think _is_ a valid reason to participate), she turned out to have a lot of personal connections to the game, and her limited participation allowed her to work through her personal history in a therapeutic way. She didn't die. She learned a lot. Also, picked up a hot dude.

Reading mid-1980s genre fiction that was written as skillfully as _Tell Me No Lies_ (or, similarly, _The Desperate Game_, which isn't as good but has some of the same attributes, altho it got butchered trying to fix the payphone/cell phone problem) is an interesting experience. 30 years on, it is more like a historical novel than a contemporary, but of course the background details tend to be more accurate in a contemporary than in a historical. It differs from a historical, in that it _really is like the 1980s_. It isn't like a 2014ish perspective on the 1980s. So there's a whole lot of stuff going on that is deeply irritating because the 1980s kind of sucked. Among other things, smoking indoors, in a work context, etc. Also, 1980s ideas about how to present a Chinese character are really shudder inducing now.

I've tried to capture my extremely mixed feelings about this book. I almost certainly will go back and reread some of the Donovan books, because now I'm curious about how those have aged. They were written later, but in the last couple of years I've really started noticing how romance authors tend to write to their cohort. The years may pass, and the heroine may stay 25-35 years of age, but as the authors get up into their 50s, 60s and 70s, the gap in values and perspective between a author born in the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s and the viewpoint character born in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s becomes painfully obvious. I don't think I'd have any trouble writing a character who was 25 and exploring a new romantic relationship. I'm pretty sure that no amount of effort on my part could convince a discerning reader that that 25 year old was born after, say, 1979. And in a contemporary set in 2014, she'd be born ... somewhat later than 1979.

TL;DR? I really don't blame you. I liked it. I'll read more Lowell (again). But it's kind of a specialized taste at this point.

ETA: Here's a probably unintentionally humorous blog post saying that historicals set in the 1980s are yawn-inducing. *blink*


I feel like I probably should go read a few of these. *pause* Yeah, no. It'll set off all my, but that's not what it was like!!!! issues.