The Craven romance is often characterised by a brutal and often misogynistic hero. A creation subject to criticism and often impalpable to modern sensibilities. Whether to circumvent such criticism or appeal to Craven’s core demographic The Highest Stakes of All is set in July 1975. That’s right 1975! Seemingly, an era in Mills and Boon where it is acceptable to pair a teenage girl with a man in his mid-30s. Though to be fair, the blurb did start with ‘Once upon a time…’
1975 or not, there is a fundamental problem that the heroine is passed into the hero’s possession as a piece of chattel lost in a poker game by her father. Certainly, in some cultures there is a stigma attached to gambling. To dissociate the character from the act in preservation of innocence should not cost the heroine the agency of her own destiny. If the character is to lose (let’s be brutal it is always the heroine who is the disempowered) she should be complicit and informed of the risk. Miranda Lee based a romance on a lost bet and she didn’t need to set it thirty-six years in the past.
What transpires is typical Craven. The hero whisks the heroine away to splendid isolation to have his wicked way with her. Believing the heroine to be of fallen virtue, he treats her in a most ungentlemanly manner until presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Distraction is provided by the usual ‘sloe –eyed’ employee. Emotional climax comes courtesy of the injury sustained by the heretofore neglected daughter. Conclusion, given the chance to leave the heroine decides to stay with hero. They kiss. The end.
Being the 1970s, specific reference is made to people, places and events. Hostility towards the feminist movement has mellowed into ambivalence. Characters smoke with little regard to their health. And we are invited to reminisce fondly of the time when the VCR and stereo were cutting edge technology. Might mean something if we didn’t miss the 70s the first time around.
A Craven romance would not be complete without the derogatory reference to Australia. Our heroine’s father is a professional gambler who has uses his (unwilling) daughter Joanne as a honey-trap. Unfortunately, the man they ensnare in Australia is a relative of Vassos Gordanis and so his subsequent actions are seen as just as he avenges his family’s honour. The hatching of the plan is something to behold:
‘You’re a pretty girl.’ That had been Diamond Lenny, his eyes appraising her through a cloud of smoke. ‘And he’s a flash kid with a wad of money who fancies the pants off you. So work him babe. Give him the hots until he can’t see straight, let alone think, then lead him to us.’
‘No, I won’t.’ Her protest had been immediate and instinctive… ‘You can’t want me to do this. Tell him so.’
‘No, Denys, mate you tell her.’ Impatiently, Diamond Lenny stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Advise your little sweetie on the economic facts of life. That hotel the rooms, the fancy tucker and the sexy gear all cost money, and it’s time she did a bit than show off her legs and bat her eyelids at the punters. Made a definite contribution, in fact.’
He sent her lascivious grin. ‘You’re female. You know how to get a bloke all worked up, then prim up and back off while he’s trying to get his zip down. But if things should go a bit too far…’ He shrugged. ‘Old Denys will forgive you, won’t you mate? Just as long as you get the boyfriend and his cash to the back room at Wally’s Bar tonight.’ P.68.
Is Craven taking the piss? Wally’s Bar? Diamond Lenny? Even ‘mate’ is thrown in for good measure. Puh…lease! We are getting a little irritated by the stereotype that all Australians are engaged in petty criminal activity.
Overall, this book reminded me of A Gift for a Lion (1977) so at least long-term devotees know exactly what they are getting.