Is there anything better than a great series about a great relationship? Today, we’ve asked author Alaya Dawn Johnson, whose Wicked City, the sequel to Moonshine, comes out next week, to talk about one of her favorite relationships—fictional, of course! Alaya(“rhymes with papaya”)’s series takes place in 1920s New York, about a social activist named Zephyr Hollis who gets involved with vampires and other sundry things in and around New York City. Thanks, Alaya!
This is a big, fat post about one of my favorite series of all time, Elizabeth Peters’s Vicky Bliss series. I probably shouldn’t have done this, especially at such length, but in the way of great loves of your life, restraint is hard to come by. The novels include Street of the Five Moons, Silhouette in Scarlet, Trojan Gold, and Night Train to Memphis. (The fifth book, The Laughter of Dead Kings, was a fun read, but it doesn’t do much to add to the romantic arc that I’m dissecting here, so I don’t get into it. Technically the first book is Borrower of the Night, but that’s pre-John.)
Blanket Spoiler Alert: I don’t spoil the mystery plots of any of the novels. I’m talking about the romantic arcs, and none of this discussion ought to detract from enjoying the whole thing. Romance, after all, is in the execution. But if you’re spoiler-phobic, consider yourself warned (and: sorry! They’re great books! Read them and come back!).
The romance between Vicky Bliss and John Tregarth (alias “Sir John Smythe”) is my all-time favorite version of the classic “reforming the rake” romance trope. You might not even realize that’s what you’re reading at first, which is part of the charm. It’s a sneaky, multiple-year subversion of the more standard story, which in the end transcends itself.
John and Vicky might be the ultimate odd couple—one of the most famous art thieves of Europe meet-cutes a brilliant art historian employed by a museum. They both take years to overcome their bad habits and misgivings and mountain-sized emotional barriers, and the journey is one of the most emotionally rewarding ones I’ve ever experienced. I have read these books a dozen times over the years (probably more, in the case of Night Train to Memphis).
Vicky and John kiss within a day of meeting. Their physical attraction (as well as their penchant for bickering) is instant, and rather hilarious. Vicky is an art historian on the trail of a gang of art forgers and thieves. She recognizes John as one of the thieves immediately, and he recognizes her as an inveterate busybody with a penchant for getting herself into trouble. Over the course of a rescue, he finds himself using his mouth as an expedient to keep her quiet while bad guys search the next room:
As kisses go, it was memorable. After I started to cooperate—which, I am ashamed to admit, occurred almost immediately—his participation became less practical and more enthusiastic. It was a ridiculous performance, as leisurely and thorough and effective as if he had all day and nothing else on his mind. Without wishing to sound immodest, I believe my own contribution was not negligible.” (SotFM, 53)
A few minutes after this auspicious meeting of the, ah, minds, John caps Vicky one on the jaw, and she awakes to find herself in a cab, on her way back to her hotel. He asks her if she can walk.
I flexed my legs. He shifted position hastily, and I smiled—or rather, I bared my teeth.
“Don’t worry, I won’t kick you. Although it would give me immense satisfaction to do so. Yes, I can walk. Demoralizing as your embraces are, they are not totally incapacitating.”(SotFM, 58)
And from such fraught beginnings are multi-book, epic romances made. Vicky and John are like flint and steel—whenever they’re together, sparks fly, and if they’re not careful, they might just start a fire. One of the things I love about the romance between these two is that the issues between them are so complex. The matter of mutual attraction is established almost immediately, after all. Leaving us with thornier problems, like: “Is this a good person for me to be attracted to?” “What are the perils of establishing a relationship with the person who steals the very art I study and preserve?” Both Vicky and John have such a difficult time dealing with emotions in a straightforward manner, it’s no wonder that it takes them a very rocky half-decade to come together.
Which leads me into the subtle genius of these unassuming, charmingly old-fashioned mystery romances: it acknowledges the time it takes for two people to change. I called this a “reforming the rake” romance, and it certainly is, but make no mistake: Vicky has to change as much as John for their relationship to have a hope of success. It’s not an accident that he declares his love for her almost year before she manages to choke out a reciprocal statement. Vicky has nearly as many “Stay Away: Emotionally Unavailable!” signs as John, and they use bigger letters.
The banter of these two is just delicious, full of literary allusions sprawling from John Donne to The Sheik, country ballads to Chopin Etudes, and I admit it’s always made me feel a little heady to read dialogue between two brilliant people trying to outdo each other.
And John’s sense of humor is delightfully demented. One early night of their acquaintance, she spots a figure beneath her balcony:
... [it] declaimed, in the bell-like tones common to Shakespeare festivals and the BBC:
‘Sweet she was and like a fairy.
And her shoes were number nine…’
I picked up a flower pot and let it fall. It missed him, but not by much; he had to leap aside to avoid the spattering fragments. I could hear him laughing as I ran inside. (SotFM 124-125)
A man who stands beneath his lady love’s balcony and woos her with the dulcet strains of “Darling Clementine” is clearly not your standard hero. John’s sense of humor is so offbeat and irrepressible that it gets him into far more trouble than he would otherwise. And yet, as John says, “Laughter is one of the two things that make life worthwhile. Aren’t you going to ask me what the other one is?” (SotFM, 300)
Well, John, I think we have some idea.
At the end of the adventure in Street of the Five Moons, Vicky is very interested, though she tries to keep it light. John tells her he’ll be in touch. He won’t say how, only that she’ll know. The message? “A little box containing Marie Antoinette’s engagement ring. Six rose-cut diamonds encircling a ten-carat sapphire. It’s in the Louvre. I think.” (SotFM, 302)
But as we learn, that romantic interlude ended rather badly. John skipped out on the tab and left her to deal with the Paris police while he escaped out the window. Another problem with dating an internationally wanted art thief, it turns out.
Silhouette in Scarlet is a lesser excursion of the Vicky Bliss mysteries—enjoyable the first time around, but it isn’t as exciting to re-read as the others. For the purposes of this study, the most interesting aspect of the story is the timeline: it takes place three years after the events of Street of the Five Moons. Vicky hasn’t seen John since the Parisian hotel incident, and it is a grudge-nursing heroine who agrees to follow his cryptic lead to Stockholm. It’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not to Vicky, that she’s angrier about hearing nothing for more than two years than she is about him leaving her in the lurch in Paris. What has John been doing all this time? If I might infer from later books, it seems like he’s been trying—and failing—to cure himself of an inconvenient fixation on a morally upright, emotionally prickly, infuriatingly foolhardy art historian.
In Trojan Gold we find Vicky at a low ebb—she hasn’t heard from John in eight months, and though she’s almost sure the monument to his demise was premature (“Honestly, Vicky, couldn’t you have exercised a little control? Those mourning cupids, with bums like cups of custard, weeping through their doughy fingers—” TG, 73-74), she’s getting afraid. Vicky’s feelings about John are miraculously complicated at this point—she loves him, but has only half-admitted it to herself. The trouble being, of course, that you can love someone while still heartily disapproving of huge chunks of their behavior. But though she tries to tell herself that John, “The most accomplished liar since Baron Munchausen” (TG, 34), can’t possibly be trusted, there is the inconvenient fact that he risked his life to save her eight months before. And, of course, the endless, inevitable, overpowering physical attraction.
The sex in these books is PG in the best sort of implied-R way—my favorite example is from Night Train to Memphis, when Vicky describes “removing myself from John and the bed, in that order.” (NTtM, 323) I could probably quote the first half Chapter Five in Trojan Gold for the personal squee-factor, but I will restrain myself to this, when Vicky is hurrying to pick up an old flame from the airport, leaving John naked in bed:
John sprang out of bed. Clad only in a wristwatch and a lordly sneer, he struck a pose like Jove about to hurl a thunderbolt and declaimed, “ ‘Yet she/Will be/False, ere I come, to two, or three.’ Aren’t you scheduling your appointments rather too tightly?” (TG, 166)
It seems a shame to spoil the joy of the full reveal of Trojan Gold and (especially) Night Train to Memphis, so will confine myself to a few observations. (Possible spoilers, but not much more so than anything previous.) Trojan Gold ends with John finally declaring his feelings to Vicky, after an adventure that has left him rather battered and defenseless. As Vicky admits, it’s a dirty trick, but she feels like she has to know. And oh, what a declaration!
“I love you,” he said flatly. “I—love—you. Shall I elaborate? I have loved you. I do love you. I will love you. I didn’t want to love you. I tried not to love you. I will undoubtedly regret loving you, but—God help me—I love you—so much—” (TG, 398)
This is the declaration that Vicky has the gall to call “boringly banal and direct” (NTtM, 13) just because he isn’t quoting Donne. And if that doesn’t explain a great deal about Vicky, her expectations, and her amazingly well-depicted emotional unavailability, nothing will. Though John has risked his life for her multiple times, she still finds it difficult to trust him. As another character asks her, “Didn’t it occur to you, even once, to give him the benefit of the doubt?” (NTtM, 254).
It’s an interesting question, because Vicky didn’t. Let me pull back the curtain a bit here and say, Elizabeth Peters’ slow-burning construction of these characters is brilliantly handled, and utterly emotionally believable (even if the situations in which they find themselves are over-the-top). Vicky and John are never estranged from each other for reasons that feel forced or author-imposed. There is no TSTL anywhere around here—Vicky and John are mostly brilliant, sometimes painfully stupid, and always for well-grounded reasons. So back to the question: why doesn’t Vicky ever give John an inch? Because she is afraid. These books depict the terror of love itself in a refreshingly honest way:
Loving someone condemns you to a lifetime of fear. You become painfully conscious of how fragile people are—bundles of brittle bones and vulnerable flesh, breeding grounds for billions of deadly germs and horrible diseases. And loving a man like John is tantamount to playing Russian roulette. He can’t help being the way he is, he’ll never change…I’ve been fighting my feelings for a long time, longer than I wanted to admit, because I knew that once I gave way it would be all the way, no holding back, no reservations…(NTtM, 337)
But in the end…well, it’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that after four whole books and five whole years, they manage their own version of an HEA, is it? Vicky says John will never change, but of course he has a great deal. And so has she. Maybe that’s what makes this on-the-surface “reforming the rake” plot work so well. Vicky and John both had to change themselves before they could discover that, despite all the terror and uncertainty, with each other they had the two things that made life worthwhile.
The editions I use for the quotes are:
Street of the Five Moons by Elizabeth Peters: HarperCollins, 2008.
Silhouette in Scarlet by Elizabeth Peters: HarperCollins, 2008.
Trojan Gold by Elizabeth Peters: Tor Books, 1987.
Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peters: Warner Books, 1994.
Alaya Dawn Johnson was surprised to learn how much of a debt Zephyr Hollis owes Vicky Bliss, over the course of re-reading the books for this article. Her Zephyr Hollis novels include Moonshine and the newly released Wicked City. You can get a taste of Zephyr’s world in the short story The Inconstant Moon. And you can read more about Alaya and her books (including excerpts) on her website, www.alayadawnjohnson.com.