So, in the course of my work on the RomanceWiki (yes, that was a shameless plug!), I noticed a pattern. One book was consistently a reader favorite, repeatedly noted as an influence, and considered a classic of romantic suspense. It did not escape my notice that, typically, I’d somehow neglected to devour Linda Howard’s Dream Man, and I resolved to fix that problem, well, you know how it goes when you have more books than time.
One of the worst-kept secrets at Paperback Reader is that we love to force our personal favorites on each other. I won’t bore you with the behind-the-scenes process, but somehow this is one of HelenKay’s favorites…so it makes sense that L.J. and I are reviewing the book.
Dream Man tells the story of Marlie Keen — who is feeling good for the first time in her life. No unwanted voices in her head, no pain. Granted, she’s leading a life that could be considered a tad dull, but as a psychic who’d become infamous for her ability to find missing people, dull is good. Her last case nearly left her dead. Just as she starts to relax into her new life, she’s hit over the psychic head with a powerful evil: a serial killer whose amorality leaves her terrified.
Knowing the drill, Marlie reports her knowledge of a brutal, vicious murder to the local police. Again, knowing the drill, she encounters the expected suspicion, especially from detective Dane Hollister. He doesn’t believe her, doesn’t believe in psychic, and will not let his attraction to Marlie get in the way solving the crime. Even as Dane starts to believe that she’s seeing into the mind of an near-impossible-to-trace killer, he keeps his eyes on the goal: stop the murders. And with that, let’s get to the good stuff:
k2: Okay, this is just between you, me, and the wall, but I’ve never read old Linda Howard. I started, quite by happy accident (me, booksigning, Linda Howard, sitting there, me, picking up book, life, never the same), with Mr. Perfect and kept moving forward. Someday, I said, someday, I’ll go back and read everything. Best intentions and all that. I was excited when Dream Man was chosen for review.
I know this is an old favorite of yours (kept handily by the computer in case you need it — something I totally respect and, well, do), so I’m going to toss out my first impression and go from there. Even as the tension kept building, I wanted this book to continue. Very rarely to I think that authors need to put more story between the covers — quite the opposite, generally I think they’re trying to put too much! — but in this case, I felt like I needed more. Do you think this book was too small, too big, or just right?
L.J.: What can I say, this is one of my comfort reads when nothing else will do. I think that the feeling you are talking about stems from the fast paced nature of the story. Marlie and Dane meet, fall in love, and capture a serial killer in a matter of a couple of weeks; their every action and reaction is colored by the murderous acts of Carroll Janes. As such we aren’t given a lot of chances to experience their downtime as a couple, something I would have enjoyed. While I believed theirs was a relationship that would last, despite the quickness of their intimacy, I wanted to spend more time with them as people, or perhaps simply spend more time with Marlie (not that I don’t love Dane, I do).
With Dane we got to see how he interacted with his colleagues and with Trammel, but Marlie was very much a lone entity. We only got to know her through her own thoughts, her interaction with Dane, and what Dr. Ewell explained about her past. Which leads me to ask whose story was this? Was it Marlie and Dane’s equally or was there an imbalance? And how did the presence of Carroll Janes’ narrative factor into this (if it did at all)?
k2: Interesting question about who “owns” this story. I’ve thought long and hard about your question — a bit longer and harder than I should have. You note that Dane has an exterior life — he has friends and colleagues (did you just love Freddie, the earth mother, unlikely sexpot, happily married cop?) — and Marlie is out there on her own. While Howard builds a very convincing and terrifying backstory for her, we are required to take Marlie at face value. At every point, she is forced to confront her fears and her past, but her character is largely fed to us by the author. Interesting that I didn’t mind this, and I may circle back to it if you don’t get there first.
However, when I look at characters and story, it is Carroll Janes who seems to carry the narrative. I don’t usually ascribe protagonist tendencies to villains — and he’s the worst sort of villain — but despite my extreme liking of both Marlie and Dane, it was Janes who propelled the action, took control. Perhaps it was the unusual setup we have here. Marlie is a psychic, an empath with clairvoyant tendencies. She is often channeling the emotions of Janes, so while she’s facing her demons, she’s also revealing his hubris, his actions, his emotions. Marlie is necessarily frightened by this — I think any reasoning human being would be terrified when faced with the thoughts of a psychopath — so a lot of her story is dealing with fear and the aftermath of psychic energy. Dane isn’t doing so much crime solving as comforting.
Thus, I think the key player in this story is Janes. I think this differs from (and mirrors) Howard’s other modern suspense in that her villains are strongly motivated and fully developed. Am I crazy here? I’m almost hoping that you’ll poke holes in my reasoning.
Keeping with the characters for a moment, we get a lot of cops with rough edges, hearts of butter in romance. Dane struck me as different. Is he your basic romance hero or something more?
L.J.: I can’t poke holes in reasoning I agree with, Janes is the catalyst for Marlie and Dane’s meeting, his moving in, and making them both face different aspects of themselves. Without Janes it is entirely possible that these two people would have never met and fallen in love, and without Marlie, the police would have never found out about Janes (as he left no evidence), so it makes sense that her growth is tied to his narrative drive. If Janes had not been a fully realized character we would not have been able to believe Marlie’s accounts of his attacks or how it made her feel and deal with life afterwards. To have a good hero, you need an even better villian to act as a foil and Janes provides that for Marlie and Dane.
As to Dane as a character I think what makes him so different from other cops in romance–what makes all the cops in Dream Man different really–is the normality. Dane has had relationships in the past; he doesn’t hate women or look down on them (as shown by both his memories of past girlfriends and his interactions with the fabulous Freddie). He has friends. He is not suffering from long lost hurt, or the case that haunts him. His suspicion of Marlie’s motives for coming to the police were healthy and expected; everyone was suspicious of her with the exception of Bonners whose strange “California-ness” gets blamed for his open mind. In romance too often the male cop protagonist could use some serious job therapy, and it is the relationship with the heroine that provides the comfort he needs to keep going. In this book Howard makes Dane the source of comfort for Marlie (which takes on more sexual overtones and actions than the reverse would), acting as both her protector and someone to make her talk about what happened to her all those years ago. It is Dane then who does the healing in this story, while it is Marlie who gets him to grow up ( e.g. making decisions about his house, taking more care in his professional appearance, making him better at his job as he becomes more open to other possibilities).
Do you agree? And how is this perception of him helped or hampered by the media circus that Dane and the police create around Marlie?
k2: Ah, the media circus. You know, it plays right into the humanity of the character (and also proves that Marlie was incapable of reading Dane’s thoughts). That scene, coming on the heels of an even more powerful scene, was just incredible. It was blatant betrayal by Dane, and you could see how he was so focused on his goal that it seemed like a logical course of action. He truly didn’t grasp the depths of his actions — he needed to shake things up on the case — and didn’t do the logical thinking about how it would impact Marlie. In the world that Dane inhabits, you don’t lose your job because you’re a psychic. Of course, in the world that Dane inhabits, you aren’t psychic. The betrayal and aftermath were incredibly well done.
It was interesting to read this scene at about the same time that the media was backtracking after trying and convicting John Mark Karr of killing JonBenet Ramsey in the court of broadcast and print news. There is such a hunger to exploit the story without regard to the human tragedy left in the wake of sensationalistic news. Marlie knew this was going to come — even if Dane hadn’t betrayed her presence on the case to the press, it would have come out in some other way — and Dane counted on the feeding frenzy to draw out the killer. Even though it is an emotionally tough scene being played out, it’s also amusing because of the sharp indictment of press happening here.
I like that you’ve focused on Dane as the source of strength in the relationship. Without his solidity (both physical and emotional), Marlie would never had become a whole person. She’s such a fragile character, yet not a pushover. However, because she spends so much of the novel in pain or recovering from the aftermath of the psychic trauma that comes from channeling the evil mind of a serial killer, I never really warmed to her in the way I did Dane. She’s all alone in the world — a waif — with a fairly generic job and a typically cozy home. If it weren’t for her psychic powers, she’d be pretty boring.
I can’t help but compare her to a character like Daisy Minor from Howard’s Open Season — a woman who wakes up and realizes that if she’s going to be happy in life, she has to take control of her world…and she does. Marlie’s lack of inner and outer life makes her less compelling to me, something I find odd considering that I was glued to the book. However, I’m not sure this is one that I’m going to reread on a regular basis (unlike other Howard stories). What is it about Marlie that I’m just not getting?
L.J.: I don’t think you are missing anything about Marlie at all, merely looking at her the wrong way. Whereas Daisy was proactive about changing her life, Marlie spends most of the story making reactive decisions upon being faced with different dilemma: Janes’ emotions seek her out, Dane muscles his way into her life, and she’s set up by the police department and the man she loves. This makes sense given the context of Marlie’s past where (while she was still reacting to the visions) she put herself out there despite the physical and mental pain it caused. Once upon a time she proactively asserted herself to the point of taunting a serial killer and it almost got her killed. At the beginning Dream Man, we meet a Marlie who is happy with normal—embraces it really—as Howard’s narrative explains:
“…it hit her: She felt good. The best she had felt in years…she realized she had been at peace for several months now, but she had been so caught up in the sedative routine of the life she had built here that she hadn’t noticed…She liked being normal.” (Pgs 1-2)
Having survived the trauma meted out by Gleen [the man who attacked her on the last case], Marlie wants nothing more than to never experience the “interesting” again and that is why the return of her powers hits her so hard, sending her scrambling. She is the reverse of most romance heroines out there: never seeking out the dangerous situations (even her resistance to a safe house makes sense in context of Dane’s betrayal), not yearning to be awakened and really quite happy with where she is in life. She has no choice but to be reactive to what is happening around her once Janes and Dane are introduced into the equation, and this gives her the appearance of certain waif characteristics, but the reality is that she still a very strong (and stubborn) character.
It is her stubbornness and this strength of survival that makes her so reactive, that makes her hesitant to just believe that after this is all through Dane is going to be there for her because the truth is, she’s not sure their routine can fit with her “normal” ideal. It is only at the end when she is forced to use and control her powers to survive that she comes to an understanding that she can balance both her ideal and the reality. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t test her control in the relationship even from the earliest days as witnessed by making Dane clean up his appearance; she simply doesn’t know what she wants to fight for since up until this point she fought to live a life verging on non-existent.
With Marlie, Howard gives us a romance heroine makes her decisions (when she can) in a slow, methodical manner. She gives us the antithesis of the “too stupid to live” heroine, and by doing so, leads a story with a female protagonist who seems almost bland. It is not that Marlie doesn’t have layers, simply that they are highly constructed, tightly bound very slow to open, something that is in direct opposition to the fast-paced suspense driven story. Perhaps this is the real reason why I wish we could see more of the relationship’s down time because I have a feeling that many of Marlie’s more subtle quirks and interesting characteristics would become more apparent and less glossed over in a less anxiety-ridden environment.
As it is, the Marlie we the reader experience becomes over-shadowed by Janes and Dane’s more bombastic personalities, and it is only upon re-reading the book time and again that I’ve been able to look past them and consider Marlie on her merits. What I’ve found is a woman who is strong in her ideals, fiercely stubborn, capable of making informed decisions, and quite happy the way she was, thank you very much. By far one of Howard’s most subtle female characters and most definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t think, however, that she could have been written any other way in the context of this story.
k2: Excellent analysis — and you’re right that I’m looking at her differently (though never wrong because I’m, well, always right!). I can appreciate that multiple readings reveals character subtleties. That’s why these books are the ones we keep reading over and over: each reading reveals something new. I really love it when an author can keep me coming back and finding something new, whether it be due to timing or great storytelling.
So, yes, I’ll give this book another chance!