I hadn’t read a romantic suspense novel in a long time and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to. Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose has a naked-chest-and-dog-tags cover that always turns me off. But, Calhoun: I’d heard a lot of good about her in the Twitterverse and wanted to give a new-to-me author a fighting chance. Turn Me Loose‘s introduction didn’t cover itself with glory and I came a hair’s-breath away from DNF-ing. But the writing was good, darn good, though I disliked the flash-back routine to the hero and heroine’s past. I recognized its necessity because it made it easier for Calhoun to segue into the present, but those, albeit not significant, parts of the novel never won me over. So, what did?
Let’s begin with basic premise and characterization. Seven years before the present scene, undercover cop Ian Hawthorn arrested eighteen-year-old college student and petty drug-dealer, Riva Henneman. In exchange for her freedom, Riva agreed to act as Ian’s “confidential informant”. Ian and Riva spent a lot of time together in stake-out and/or drug busts, with Riva entering dangerous situations as her CI-drug-dealer-self to help Ian and the Lancaster Police Department make arrests. A resentful attraction seethes between them, but ethical lines and power differentials are not crossed. Seven years pass and Ian walks into Riva’s business, a farm-to-table restaurant operation, Oasis, that takes teens and young adults from food-impoverished neighbourhoods and gives them a chance at fair and engaging labour. The food is delicious, Riva is beautiful, and the attraction between them still sizzles and seethes.
When one of Riva’s teens from the Teen Cuisine Program is arrested, she and Ian are thrown together again. Because it turns out that the person the LPD is looking for, one making inroads to the community’s drug trade, is Riva’s father, the man who set Riva up in the first place and now torments her mother. Once again, Riva and Ian go undercover, in Chicago this time, moving into her parents’ house in an attempt to gather evidence against Rory Henneman. Pretty standard RS stuff: protagonists in danger with time-outs for simmering-to-scorching love scenes (let’s just say that Calhoun’s leave major embers).
Except not. Calhoun does a lot more than what meets the blurb. Her romance narrative’s power lies in her characters’ complexity, especially Ian, who is more damaged of the two. Ian had a dream: like older brother Jamie, he wanted to be a SEAL. He was on that journey when a cancer diagnosis stopped him short and killed the dream forever. Being a cop was second best, but Ian was going to be the best second best he could be … he was at this point in his life when he arrested Riva. Riva’s story is embroiled with her father, the man whose approval and love she craved so much she would give up personal integrity and her mother, to win it. This is how she ended up being arrested by Officer, now Lieutenant, Ian Hawthorn, seven years ago.
Getting Rory and rescuing her drug-induced mother out from under Rory’s abuse become Riva and Ian’s mission. Except this time, they accomplish something as equals. But navigating the delicacy of their past positions and figuring out how much of themselves to give away make this a challenging task. What of the complication of contending with feelings they’ve squelched, buried, and burned? What of physical attraction and how fraught with implications touch becomes? There they are, in a sociopath’s house, suspended in professional and personal precariousness. How to steer the past, when it had been this, “his gaze flint against the tinder of her young, impetuous desire”? When Ian remembers “he’d turned her loose, knowing he had no right and no business staying in touch with her without being the worst kind of creeper”?
Calhoun takes on Ian and Riva’s power differential by doing something good romance writers do: equalizing them. Not in a cold, statistical, or protocol-based way, rather by stripping them of their “official” status for a personal one. Like all good romance writers, Calhoun does this in two arenas: the bedroom and the conversation. Romance works when the love scenes say what the hero and heroine can’t and dialogue works when the hero and heroine confess their most vulnerable truths, expose themselves emotionally as they do physically. (And THIS is why I’ve never fully enjoyed the closed-bedroom-door romance and never will, even when a beloved romance writer writes it. A kisses-only romance can do this, but closed-bedroom door can’t. Rant over.)
Again, like all great romance writers, Calhoun has to bring her hero and heroine to an elemental level. One of my favourite moments is this one, when Riva finally sees Ian as more than the man who witnessed her moral humiliation (which is interesting in and of itself; for Riva, it was never about power, it was about seeing her morally compromised that made her run from Ian). What makes Riva able to love Ian now is that he has finally seen her as morally whole, uncompromised:
With every passing day the complex tangle of emotions Ian raised in her unknotted a little more. He became less her downfall, less her enemy, less her worst nightmare, leaving behind just Ian. Just a man … She let herself see him, the real him, the feral creature who lived, lived through cancer, lived as hard and ferociously as he could … She could handle this. Handle him.
And what of Ian? He can’t see Riva without seeing his own shameful secret: he wanted her in a way that questioned his ability to be an honest cop. Now, he needs her to choose him freely, so that their relationship can move beyond their past, his actions and hypocrisy. He’s “turned her loose,” so she can freely return to him.
I thought Calhoun’s work was the best kind of emotional and moral conflict. I loved Riva and Ian and I came to the end believing in their commitment, fidelity, love, and future. I could’ve done with less of the characters from past books. At times, I thought Calhoun lost control over her prose when she tried to depict that moral and emotional complexity, but I give her full marks for the attempt if not the execution’s consistency. (I noticed there aren’t any new Calhoun books on the horizon and for that I’m truly sorry. I hope Calhoun’s not out there remaking herself in women’s fic guise. I’d like to have three-dimensional RS characterization to look forward to.) With the scandalized Miss Austen (okay, the love scenes are de trop for these two spinsters), I’d say Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose is indicative of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Anne Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose, sixth in the Alpha Ops series, is published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks. It was released on May 30th, 2017, and may be procured from your preferred vendor. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from St. Martin’s, via Netgalley.
(Miss Bates is aware she “dropped” the third-person conceit. It grew clunky and awkward and forced a formality she no longer felt. She’s still an impoverished spinster living with her mum, she’s just not an impoverished Regency spinster living with her mum.)