Pandora's Box

Soft Focus

Jayne Ann Krentz
2000 reissue of 1999 release, Romantic Suspense
Jove, $7.50, 359 pages, Amazon ASIN 0515129224

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

Soft Focus is Jayne Ann Krentz's latest foray into the romantic suspense market. It starts with a memorable opening scene that ends with the heroine throwing ice water on the hero in a very posh, private club. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Cabot, something stronger than a marriage license binds her to Jack Fairfax - a business contract. Thus begins a trip through the worlds of business and film noir seasoned with a dash of romance and mystery.

Linda:  Reviewing a new Jayne Ann Krentz book always poses a unique challenge for me. I am a real JAK fan and have read virtually all of her backlist. So, when I review a Krentz book, I judge it on two levels. First, is it a good book? Second, is it prime JAK?

Carol:  Soft Focus was my second JAK contemporary although I have read her as Amanda Quick in about five historical romance novels. The other JAK contemporary of hers I read was Perfect Partners, which, according to the buzz, is one of her best books. I have to handle this discussion on two levels as well because the things I don't like about both JAK and SF might be pluses for her fans.

Linda:  There are certain "hallmarks" that I expect in a "prime" JAK book. I expect a likable, spunky heroine, an educable, alpha hero (often wounded), adult banter and the joy of watching the couple realize their mutual need and love. To be honest, with JAK, the plot is low on my priority list. Her books are favorite re-reads because of the characters, not the story.

Carol:  SF works better for me as a romance than as a mystery. I am a hard core mystery fan, especially loving the ones made into American film noir, like Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice or Kasdan's Body Heat. I've read the more "civilized" English mysteries, like Sayer's Lord Peter-Harriet Vane series, but don't like those nearly as much. So when JAK dangles American film noir in front of me, I expect a far grittier, darker mystery. I also expected to see the hero and heroine attending a great film festival as background atmosphere. Unfortunately, I didn't get either one!

Linda:  I also like English Country house mysteries. Many of them are also "character" rather than plot driven. In several favorite JAK's I solved the mystery early but enjoyed the ride to the happy ending. The challenge for JAK as she moves deeper into the suspense genre is to keep her old fans happy while acquiring new readers. SF succeeds much better than last year's Eye of the Beholder. In the prologue of Soft Focus, JAK has the nerve to spoof one of the sacred cows of the romance genre. By sacred cow, I mean the sexually adept male who always pleases the heroine. To open a book with Jack knowing he blew it and Elizabeth throwing ice water all over him was wonderful. It set the tone for their whole relationship, and for the novel itself.

Carol:  I admit, the romance will probably work for those who are already her fans. I do have a problem with all of her heroes (and some heroines) being high-end business types and CEOs. Both Jack and Elizabeth are high profile CEOs in Seattle. Most real-life CEOs are not all that great looking with wonderful personalities to boot. Imagine Donald Trump romancing Martha Stewart. And aren't most male CEOs looking for trophy wives and not other CEO types?

Linda:  Carol, I fell off my chair laughing at the idea of "The Donald" as a JAK hero. JAK's heroes are fantasy CEO's. They are not jerks like "the Donald" and even when they are computer nerds (like Stark in Trust Me) they don't look like Bill Gates. Martha Stewart may be "spunky," but she would never make a JAK heroine. I read that Martha's divorce decree specified she is "never to speak to her ex-husband again." I think that perhaps she is a bit of a perfectionist. [g] JAK's heroines are more likely to be clumsy or even a bit ditsy, but never unkind or bitchy.

JAK has created some wonderful heroes. Most of her fans have a hard time deciding whether they like Gideon in Ravished better than Max in Grand Passion, not forgetting Luke in Family Man, and then there is. . . . Well, you see the problem is that many of them are just so endearing. They might even act like jerks at the beginning of the book, but they are never cruel to the heroine. Also, once they have found the heroine, they hang on for dear life. SF's Jack Fairfax is typical of the best of Krentz's heroes. He knows he blew his chances with Elizabeth and he doesn't have a clue how to repair the damage. Reminds me a bit of Kyle Stockbridge in A Woman's Touch, an old Harlequin Temptation by Krentz, recently reprinted by MIRA.

JAK's heroines are spunky ladies. Elizabeth's march through the posh club to confront Jack on page one is typical of the best of Krentz. These great ladies stand up to their men even while they stand by them. Watching them tame the hero, usually while he thinks he is doing the taming, is half the fun of a Krentz book.

Carol:  I liked her heroes in the first three Amanda Quick's I read. When I hit my fourth and fifth Quick books though, I felt she was writing the same book, and the same characters again and again. Then, as JAK, she simply makes her heroes CEOs instead of dukes and earls. Doesn't she ever have a non-CEO or a non-aristocrat hero? Jack's late father was a CEO and so is the villian, Hayden, who wants to outdo him at every turn. Linda, maybe it is easier for you to suspend disbelief but I have a hard time reading novel after novel of hers - seven, so far - with the same setup. I have one more JAK in my TBR and one more AQ and that is probably going to be it for her with me. What are the heroes like in her sci-fi written as Jayne Castle? Intergalactic council heads?

Linda:  LOL, Carol, she even has one written as Stephanie James that has a hero/CEO who used to be a truck driver. She keeps referring to his "gold tooth winking in the light when he laughs". Apparently it was the gold tooth that gave the heroine a clue that he wasn't quite the "smooth and suave" CEO he presented to the world. Why only she noticed the gold tooth was a mystery to me [g].

I guess what is a strength to her fans is perceived as a weakness by you. I think when a JAK fan opens a new book she expects to find a strong hero who both needs and appreciates the heroine; a likable, stand-up lady; and a true love story, with the couple working together toward a common goal. Watching the couple come together and their usually excellent banter is more important than the mystery that brought them together. SF succeeds for me both as mystery and as a romance, but it did fall short of being one of her best.

Carol:  I've noticed some posting online by readers that JAK's Soft Focus seems to be missing some usual, admired element which they are used to finding in her work. These are readers like yourself who have read virtually everything of hers. Do you feel the same way and, if so, please tell me what's missing, Linda - I don't have the slightest idea.

Linda:  It is a wonderful book with some great one-liners, but what I missed was the look into their heads. I realized part-way through SF that Krentz had not fully delineated Jack's or Elizabeth's characters. They are certainly well-defined, just not quite to the degree that I expect from this author. JAK usually gives us insight into what they are thinking. It is often their internal dialogue that lets the reader see why love grows between this couple. It is missing here, even though there is some excellent adult banter. I loved this couple and I could understand why they were attracted to each other, but would have liked to have seen their emotional growth rather than having it inferred.

The romantic element between the couple was much better than last year's Eye of the Beholder, though. EOTB's first coupling occurred out of nowhere. It was more of a "jump your bones" type thing, much more lustful than loving. I opened SF with trepidation and it was a relief to see JAK was back in prime form. When Jack and Elizabeth finally come together again in SF, he gets it right and so does Krentz. It was a lovely and loving scene.

Carol:  Yes, she writes very good scenes of love-making. I'll give her that. However, this book does not have the character development I expect for the two lead characters. I want to know those two people inside and out. She may have had to cut down on that development because she used so many other characters to fool us on "who did it," although I had no problem figuring that out.

This book reminded me of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies of the '60s, like Pillow Talk. If fans of those movies are the foundation of her readership, they probably will enjoy SF. It's sure a lot more sexually explicit than a Day-Hudson movie. The opening scene, where she flings ice water over Jack after marching through the posh Seattle club reminds me of the scene in Pillow Talk where Day redecorates Hudson's apartment to look like Early Debauched Lecher as revenge for fooling her about his real identity. Elizabeth's fury at Jack is likewise based on the holding back of an aspect of his identity. I liked the Hudson-Day movies back in the '60s but I feel that a 2000 author should be using a newer, fresher premise. However, JAK does the sexually explicit Hudson-Day kind of romance very well and if she wants to stick with it, a lot of fans will probably be very happy. The much more serious problem is her use of mysteries within this motif.

Linda:  I hadn't ever thought of JAK's books as being Doris Day-Rock Hudson-ish, but there is some truth to that. I loved those movies and love to watch them still. But, JAK's heroines are usually much more savvy than Doris Day ever was; she always seemed like an accident waiting to happen to me [g]. Obviously, from your comments, JAK has a real challenge in attracting and pleasing the readers of grittier mystery/suspense books, while still keeping the rest of us happy.

Carol:  Linda, another thing that bothered me was that she made the film festival a third-rate event attended by phonies and/or film industry climbers. It was held in Colorado and described as featuring film noir that were never going to make it because neither the films not the actors were good enough. Colorado actually holds the well regarded Telluride Film Festival and, next door in Utah, is the even better known Sundance Film Festival. Although I have no idea what type of research was involved in this book, it didn't read to me as though she'd attended either of these two real festivals, which would have made the novel more authentic and fresh.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote a really wonderful memoir of his attendance at the Cannes Film Festival called Two Weeks In The Summer Sun. He covered many of the eccentric and egocentric characters attending it plus all the unique places to go and films to see there. Again, although I don't know if JAK read this memoir as source material, I wish she had made her tale more authentic.

Linda:  I think the film festival was just the "macguffin" to carry the storyline. It never seemed quite real to me either. Still, I loved her discussion of the wonderful old noir movies and their strengths. It is obvious JAK loves these old movies too. Also, it seemed to me that the denouement was kind of rushed and a bit too pat. But, these are minor quibbles with a book that will definitely make the keeper shelf with a lot of her other books. Also, wasn't the cover with its Veronica Lake-type model wonderful?

Carol:  To answer your question, yes, I like the cover and it does remind me of Veronica Lake's starring role in The Blue Dahlia with Alan Ladd. I disagree with you about JAK's being a noir aficionado though. She expresses a very superficial understanding of American film noir and anyone who is a fan of it will notice that immediately. She completely misses the fact that noir emphasizes, via its intensity, the very best and the very worst of human nature. Also, her villains in SF were very thinly developed for a noir. Noir usually turns on how great the villain is!

SF also has plot and characters up the wazoo. Not only did JAK get into film noir, but she also plunged into the computer industry with industrial espionage. Why not pick one of these behemoth industries rather than both of them? And, there are simply too many characters in this book, including: Jack's two half brothers; Elizabeth's brother-in-law; the renegade-thief-scientist cum film producer; Elizabeth's "gal-Friday" back in Seattle; Elizabeth's new friend in Colorado; and Vicky, a film noir actress.

I think JAK should stick to romances and get out of mysteries ASAP. Janet Evanovich and J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) are much better at doing the mystery genre blended with romance. Other romance writers in addition to JAK are also trying to get on this bandwagon. Let's just say that many seem to be called to romantic suspense, but few are being chosen. [g]

Linda:  I agree with you that there are too many red herrings and sub-characters. Krentz's plotting flaws have been worrying me ever since Eye of the Beholder and the truly awful Affair. In EOTB, she started an interesting sub-plot about art forgery and it just disappeared part way through the book. Suddenly it was mentioned at the end of the book and wrapped up in a page. Even worse, it was a more interesting plot than the one that carried the book. EOTB falls into that group of enjoyable books, but not prime JAK. JAK's characters and their humor have been her strengths. To be honest, some of her mysteries were not very mysterious and some were even laughable.

JAK's books usually have characters with complicated families and lots of characters. My favorite, Family Man, has a dog that has more personality than many authors give their heroes. The theme of "family" is a recurring one in JAK's books. The family can take many forms and be loosely connected, but there is always a sense of belonging, safety and love in this group.

Carol:  Well, making the dog one of the main characters can really "make" a novel for me so I will have to consider adding Family Man to the TBR pile. It sounds like Family Man doesn't have a mystery though and that also advances its chances for making it into my TBR for JAK.

Linda:  Family Man is not a mystery, so as a dog lover, you might really go for it. However, since I read JAK for the romance, I was a very happy camper with Soft Focus too, even with its also being a mystery. But, obviously, if her goal is attracting an audience who wants "hard" and "gritty" mysteries, JAK has her work cut out for her. Plotting has never been her strength and just making them convoluted does not necessarily make them more suspenseful. I think this book succeeded as a mystery in the best traditions of "country house" or genteel mysteries. I always solved those right away too, but enjoyed the ride to the end of the line.

Carol, you said awhile back that there were too many characters in this book - many of whom were thrown in as red herrings. One character I loved was Vicky. I was thinking that a very interesting romance book could be written about her and it would be interesting to see what kind of man would be her match.

Carol:  But Linda, compare Vicky, the femme fatale in this book, with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and you'll see the difference. Vicky just doesn't have their sultry, touch of evil, fatal to the hero, approach.

Have you read Heart Throb by Suzanne Brockmann? It's also based in the film industry. Now there is a book that works all the way through. It isn't a trumped up "whodunit." The film aspects are realistic and the hero, a recovering substance abuser, Oscar-caliber actor, is to-die for. The romance is with his film producer and takes place while they are shooting the film on location. There is a lot of conflict and someone even dies but this book has well developed characters with an uncontrived plot. I just don't understand why JAK has this huge following and Brockmann a smaller one.

Linda:  I guess that we will have to just agree to disagree on this one. I thought the motivations behind Vicky were much better than Kathleen Turner's were. But, I am not a fan of Turner, no matter the role. I haven't read Heart Throb yet, but Brockmann seems to be building a nice following.

Carol:  Well, your not liking Kathleen Turner as the lead in a film noir over JAK's Vicky is very telling. JAK herself describes Vicky as a likable person but a third-rate talent who is leaving acting after this film to try something else. Although not all noir films were box-office hits, the leads in these films could never be described as third-rate talent. It shows me JAK really shouldn't be writing about femme fatales. They are not her thing.

Linda:  I love Krentz, she has given me many happy hours of reading. I closed this book with a smile on my face. Krentz's books are very character-driven. If you don't like those types of characters, obviously you are not going to "get" why she has very loyal legions of fans. But, although I am a fan, I like some books better than others. There are even one or two I don't like at all. No one is going to hit a home run every time. For me, this one was a triple, very close to perfect and a really enjoyable read that will be a keeper. I certainly felt I got my money's worth - on a hardback. that's saying a great deal.

Carol:  Linda, it is clear that you really love this author while I feel that I have read enough of her in any of her guises. I know you are not alone. I will say that as both JAK and AQ she is a fast, easy read and an evening's entertainment, completely forgettable the next day for me. In fact, I had forgotten the heroine's first name until you used it, and I read the book only a few days ago.

I know you'll be seeing JAK in Seattle at Celebrate Romance 2000, along with a lot of our readers. Do you feel that all of you are doing her a favor, encouraging her in this mystery direction? I think the favor would be to tell her to forsake the mystery genre forever.

Linda:  Yup, I do love her books. But, Carol, I think you do get the appeal that she has for her fans! When you said, "a quick read and a pleasant evening's entertainment," you summed up her appeal rather nicely. Her fans are not looking for a deep, meaty "War and Peace" type read. Her books are not meant to stand up to heavy analysis - they are entertainment with wonderful characters. Looking for serious meaning in these books, is like trying to find serious cultural statements in Laverne & Shirley.

Actually, I'm not a fan of her foray into the mystery market. I am afraid that her real strengths are going to suffer and the things that I love about her will be lost.

So, I guess to sum up, Carol is still not a Krentz fan and Linda is putting the book on her keeper shelf.

Carol, do you want to reveal what we will be reading and critiquing next month?

Carol:  Our book next month is Mary Spencer's Devil's Wager, an historical romance set in the Regency period. This is an author who is not as well known as the other authors we've discussed in this forum, but I think she should be.

This is the third in a trilogy but they can be read independently. The first two are Dark Wager and Lady's Wager, both of which I've read. I loved them and they are still in print. Amazon carries all three. This third book has a hero I've been watching eagerly in the prior two books. I hate this third book's cover, BTW, but I will, contrary to popular opinion, buy a novel I want to read even if I hate the cover. This cover has already been suggested to me by readers as a nominee for the 2000 Cover contest in the Worst category. You'll be able to see it with the column next month and decide for yourself. [g]

Linda:  I am going to overlook the cover and look forward to trying a new-to-me author. I have discovered a few gems - like Laura Lee Guhrke - thanks to your recommendations. Contrary to popular opinion, we often like the same books, but usually not for the same reasons. [g]

--Carol Irvin and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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