Pandora's Box

Deadly Kisses

Brenda Joyce
2006, Historical Mystery (Turn of the Century New York)
MIRA, $6.99, 480 pages, Amazon ASIN 0778322688
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

In Deadly Kisses Brenda Joyce continues the saga of the investigating career of socialite Francesca Cahill. Francesca is engaged to Calder Hart at the beginning of the book, but they are both immediately plunged into a murder involving his former mistress which threatens their lives and love.

Calder had agreed to let his ex-mistress, Daisy Jones, finish out her six-month lease in his house, but after her murder, he is the prime suspect. Calder's half-brother Rick is Commissioner of Police and Rick is determined not to be perceived as showing any favoritism toward his estranged sibling. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Francesca was once involved with Rick and they are still extremely close.

Francesca is determined to find the killer, even though Calder and Rick keep telling her to withdraw from the case. Francesca moves through turn-of-the-century New York society trying to determine just who Daisy was and how she became a prostitute. As Francesca digs into Daisy's, past a surprisingly upscale background as a member of a prominent family is revealed. Was Daisy's death related to her present...or her past?

Linda: Deadly Kisses is my first Brenda Joyce. It took me a little while to get used to her writing style. How did you like it, Blythe?

Blythe: Well, I actually read the first book in the series years ago when it came out. I love the idea of the series - a female sleuth in turn of the century New York City - but I hate the execution. of it. I didn't like the first Deadly book I read, and I liked this one even less. I find Francesca's characters and her actions utterly implausible for the time period, but I also couldn't help disliking most of the characters. I am guessing you liked it more than I did?

Linda: I did like it better then you, but that doesn't mean I was crazy about it. It was kind of weird trying to figure out who the people were and what was going on. I felt like I do when I sit down with my friend Cathy, who is a rabid Days of Our Lives fan. I will try to watch with her and she will quickly tell me who the people are and what happened in previous episodes - I just feel lost trying to keep track of who these people are That is how this book affected me. There were so many characters and it was assumed that you knew who they were, what their problems in the past were, and why they acted as they did. I definitely needed some kind of synopsis up front listing the characters and their roles.

Blythe: The only characters I really remembered from my first Deadly foray were Francesca, Rick Bragg, and Francesca's parents. The rest of them were pretty much new to me. (If I had met them, I had forgotten them). In the first book, Rick Bragg is more or less the hero, and it appears that he will be the love interest of the series. By this book, that had clearly changed. Rick was married to someone else, and Francesca is engaged to Rick's half brother, Calder Hart. Hart is apparently a major bad boy. I thought I did okay with figuring out who was who, but then I also thought the book gave the impression that New York was populated by about sixteen people. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and they were always bumping into each other.

Linda: Yes, that is true. I was also intrigued with the setting of New York in 1902 - so many changes were going on in the world during that time. But Francesca just seems a total anachronism. The only way her character would make any sense to me would be if she were a time traveler from 2006 sent back to 1902. Her actions were sometimes really dumb and didn't fit into the age Joyce chose for her setting.

Blythe: That's it, completely. She basically runs around the city doing whatever she wants, with the full cooperation of the police department (which I find unlikely both then and now). I've read historical mysteries that work much better than this, and the primary feature they all share is that the sleuth acts like they are from the time period in question. They poke their nose into things, but they aren't so in your face about it. Francesca also shows little concern for her safety, even after she is attacked.

Linda: Yes, frankly she is supposed to be very smart - but she often exhibits TSTL behavior. I had problems with characters like her disowned brother and his two love interests; they appear, disappear, then reappear many chapters later. I found this very strange. I never did figure out much about the countess, who was previously engaged to Francesca's brother. Why had he gotten involved with her in the first place? She obviously had a shady past and I can only assume more was given in previous books. I think Joyce needs to do a better job of filling in backstory, if she wants to attract new readers to the series.

Blythe: Yeah, maybe the countess thing made a little more sense to long-time readers, because like you I had trouble figuring out what he saw in her in the first place when she was clearly a major b_tch. But I also took some time to warm up to Rick and his wife, who are apparently estranged, although the reason for their estrangement is never made clear in this book. (editor's note: in checking reviews of the previous books, the estrangement is featured in Deadly Caress). They get together more at the end, but most of the book they are pining for each other and refusing to say anything about it. I didn't find that compelling at all.

Linda: I did find their story rather sweet, but again I was left in the dark as to the nature of the accident that left her in a wheelchair.

Blythe: A little tip-off as to what caused the accident would have been helpful. But I think one of my main issue with this book was the mind-numbing amount of conversation. Francesca talks to everyone repeatedly, filling them in on the latest news. It reminded me of a Heather Graham novel I disliked, where characters from all the previous books kept running into each other on Civil War battlefields and catching up on old times. Francesca apparently needs to update everyone she knows on every development of her life. She relives various conversations a million times, and it drove me crazy.

Linda: Again, this reminded me of my Days of Our Lives experiences - certain characters seem to only exist so that they can fill in everyone in town on what's going on. But, it wasn't just that there were lengthy conversations, it was the stilted nature of those conversations that bugged me. This boils down to Joyce's slightly eccentric writing style, which I did get used to after about five chapters.

Another problem for me was Calder Hart himself. His past is reprehensible and the whole plot involving his ex-mistress, and his treatment of both women just seemed unsavory to me. I found him a difficult hero to like, let alone love.

Blythe: I didn't much care for him either, but I decided toward the end of the book that the only character I liked at all was Maggie, a widowed seamstress struggling to raise four children. She is also the love interest of Francesca's brother Evan.

Linda: Yes, I liked her as well and I think she would be a good match for Evan - who is a bit of a cipher though he is obviously addicted to gambling.

Another thing that bugged me were those plot points introduced, only later to be dropped. In the opening chapter, for instance, Francesca thinks about the nude portrait Calder had commissioned of her - and is then stolen. Every once in a while someone refers to the stolen painting; I guess it is going to turn up in a future book and bite Francesca and Calder. I really hate these types of setups that just leave you hanging - I guess these kind of gimmicks are supposed to make you want to buy the next book - but I find it just irritating.. Diana Palmer does a lot of this "foreshadowing", but she pulls it off because she is introducing characters you will meet again and not plot points that remain completely unsolved.

Blythe: I also thought the painting was supposed to be a major plot point, but I guess it was all more long term. My sense is that Joyce is trying to model these books after J.D. Robb's hugely successful In Death series. I've read all the In Death books in order, so I don't really know how well they work for someone coming into the middle. Perhaps intermittent readers of those have similar problems. In any case, I doubt I could drum up the interest to read even one more of these.

It was all I could do to finish this one.

Linda: LOL. I would probably give it a C to C-. The book wasn't a total turn off, but it falls into that large group of books that I read and forget immediately. I certainly am not going to glom (let alone read) the earlier Deadly books.

I haven't read the Robb books, but I have read several mystery series out of order and had no trouble figuring out what was going on and who the characters were. But, people in DK just kept popping up - like the painter and the guy who is supposed to be her love interest - they came, made little impression and then went away never to appear again. LOL But, I would really enjoy seeing more of Rick and his wife - she became a likable and valiant heroine during the course of the book and I loved it when she tried to blackmail the countess.

Blythe: Linda, you mentioned earlier that you found her writing style distinctive. How so?

Linda: What irritated me about Joyce's writing style was her short stilted sentences, which made conversations (both internal and external) flow very unnaturally. For example, Calder says to Francesca: "I care too much for you to hurt you this way," he said. "We can't go on, Francesca. And I won't have you part of it". Then skip her reply and he concludes: His gaze became moist. " No, you're not. I am leaving you. Goodbye, Francesca" he said roughly." I just found these short simple sentences made for a rough flow while reading and I can't imagine how stilted they would sound in an audio book. Also, her descriptions verge on the purple occasionally as well.

Blythe: I thought the dialogue was pretty stilted. I also laughed every time Francesca ended a comment with "Oh, yes." (She would get this clue, oh yes.) It sounded really dumb.

Linda: Yes, that drove me nuts too. Also, I now have another of Romance's plot conventions to add to my dislike list: the hero (or heroine) who tells a lie and leaves the hero/heroine for their own good!!

At least Joyce had Calder tell Francesca the truth that he did care about her - even if he was leaving her for her own good.

Blythe: I didn't have much patience with the broken engagement plot. I figured since Francesca already was well-acquainted with prostitutes and other assorted characters from the slums, being engaged to a man accused of murder was not going to make her reputation any worse than it already was.

Linda: True, had Francesca's parents not been filthy rich and socially prominent, I'm sure she'd have been completely shunned. Instead society appears to enjoy gossiping about her business and reputation. Also, it was ludicrous that a woman of that time (heck even in our time) would associate with prostitutes and other lowlifes. When she went to the whore house I thought it totally ridiculous.

I was also baffled about her sister being referred to as Lady Montrose? Since this story is set in New York, one would expect her to be a simple Mrs. I know that wealthy Americans did send their daughters to England to marry into titles (Winston Churchill's mother Jenny being a prominent example), but there was no explanation as to why Connie was Lady Montrose. A short sentence saying her husband was the Duke of something or other and why he was living in New York would have helped. His title was just another annoying fact not explained to add to my laundry list of complaints.

Blythe: Well, Linda, it sounds like both of us had similar problems with this book: a too modern heroine, random and confusing plot lines, and some unlikable characters. I'm glad you found more to like than I did, but I don't see either of us really recommending that readers rush out and buy this one.

What are we doing next month, Linda?

Linda: We'll be taking next month off. It's been over a year since we had a break, and it'll give us a chance to make some changes to PB based on results of last month's user survey. Two changes that we can announce now are that in the future we will not also post reviews of books discussed in Pandora's Box, and that we'll be adding a grade to Pandora's Box columns.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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