Death, Taxes, and Extra-Strength Hold Hairspray by Diane Kelly
One of the perks of reviewing is that serendipity can strike and lead to me reading something outside my usual range. In Death, Taxes, and Extra-Strength Hold Hairspray by Diane Kelly (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), a Tara Holloway Novel, I find myself a man trespassing into the usually closed world of Romance. In fact, I have read some romantic novels over the years, but this proved unexpectedly enjoyable. As this last sentence betrays a certain level of prejudice, I’ll offer a word or two of explanation. Taking the broader view, I should not be dismissive of Romance. It’s actually dominant, taking a larger market share than any of the other genres. Since I claim a general interest in the publishing industry, I should regularly dip into the genre to see how, if at all, it’s developing. Except, like most men, I tend not to take the plunge with any degree of enthusiasm. Although I was interested in the world of courtship as a young man, the female point of view as portrayed in Romance has always felt unduly optimistic. Sadly, my own view of marriage has been tinged by a sense of impermanence. According to Wikipedia, an infallible source, one-in-three British marriages ended in divorce between 1995 and 2010. In the US, first marriages last about eight years. Reading books which suggest couples will live “happily ever after” is therefore bordering on fantasy. Even if there’s some realism in avoiding the notion of absolute happiness and authors promise only that couples will get the best level of happiness open to them, it’s still unsatisfying.
The genre did, however, grow more interesting when more liberal publishers allowed fictional couples to have sexual relationships — not that I’ve ever been interested in reading detailed descriptions of sexual activity, pornographic or otherwise. In Romance, the authors’ intention was still to provide narratives that were joyous and inspirational, but they were at least recognising the shift in social mores. This is not to deny the artistic merit of any of these books. As in any genre, only the usual small proportion are well-written. That they prefer an uplifting view of the world does not mean they are any the less creative and artistic in the literary sense of the word. I’m also not confident in attacking Romance as somehow anti-feminist. Although the majority of books do reinforce role-based stereotypes showing women as less equal than men, the modern books allow women to have good jobs and personal goals that do not necessarily coincide with the wishes of the men in their lives. This opens the door to the possibility of empowerment and denies the blanket accusation such books are mere patriarchal propaganda.
In this book, our heroine is supposedly the senior member of a two-person team assigned to enforce the tax laws against a small group of Texan secessionist Libertarians and the potentially corrupt pastor of one of these television mega-church organisations. For very different reasons, both refuse to pay any American taxes. Naturally, our gun-toting heroine will have none of this and sets off to see justice is done. Except, instead of her usual partner, she’s forced to work with a man whom she finds deeply attractive. Indeed, were it not for the presence of a steady boyfriend, she would probably be heavily into this colleague — ignoring the usual rules against fraternisation between co-workers, of course. Her predicament is made all the more difficult when said boyfriend announces he has won a contract requiring him to leave the area for a month. With only Skype to keep them together, our heroine must wrestle with the inevitable question whether the grass is greener on the other side. Since the co-worker understands he’s in with a shout, he’s not slow to advance his claim, endearing himself to her parents and introducing his mother who proves to be a kindred spirit. When things get to the parent stage, the pressure to react is enormous. Should she ditch the current boyfriend? Well, she discovers she can be mighty jealous when she finds a local news reporter has been flirting with him indoors. Worse, when the threats start to roll in and may put our heroine in real danger, the co-worker insists on spending the night in her house to offer additional protection. Never has the need for a cold shower been greater. But militating against this lust is the tendency of our co-worker to be a little too pushy in the work area — they are both alpha personalities. These cases were assigned to her. He’s supposed to be second fiddle, but actively asserts himself as if he’s the senior partner. If she’s supposed to be on a level playing field, she should not have to struggle to stay in charge. In his mind, it seems there’s a double standard at work. When one-on-one, he wants to be the dominant one. If they are going to get together sexually, this is probably a model of how he will relate to her in all areas of their shared life. While not a jerk, he’s certainly more likely to be protective and possessive, flaws to match against the perceived goodness of the current boyfriend who’s much less assertive and more accommodating. Indeed, in comparison, he’s probably a bit dull — except for the sex, of course. She’s very satisfied by the current level of performance in bed.
The main focus of the thrillerish side of the book is on the creepy pastor rather than the NRA-obsessed freedom fighters. This gives our heroine the chance to deal with the Christian militia rather than be forced into a rerun of the Regulator-Moderator type feud that made Texas such a fun place to live. And all is told in a way that did, from time to time, make me smile. Yes, this is another of those books which coincides with my vestigial sense of humour. It’s genuinely good fun to read. So what better recommendation could I give this than to say Death, Taxes, and Extra-Strength Hold Hairspray is an amusing Romance involving a female agent not afraid to shoot in self-defence who has to make the judgement of Paris between two good-looking men and avoid her own house being burned to the ground (with her inside).
For a review of a novella in the same series, see Death, Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.