Getting into a new genre can be a challenging because they all come with their own particular signs, signifiers and tropes that can leave a newbie floundering and confused. Alexis Hall invites readers of Heroes & Heartbreakers to join him on a journey through the genre. This week, we’ll be looking at Julie James’s Something About You.
They Do, In Fact, Fight Crime: Something About You by Julie James
Fair warning, this article contains SPOILERS because I’ve never really been that spoiler-averse and I like to discuss things in detail. The way I see it, if Romeo and Juliet can get away with giving away the ending in the opening paragraph, it can't be that big a deal.
That said, I was a little bit surprised by the fact that Something About You has a spoiler in its actual series title.
The book tells the story of Assistant US Attorney Cameron Lynde and badass FBI agent Jack Pallas. The title of the series, however, is the FBI/US Attorney series. So…umm…anybody what to guess what career changes Cameron might experience over the course of the book?
There's a lot to like about Something About You, and a couple of things I found confusing. Okay, that's a lie, there was only one thing I found confusing: the title. Leaving aside the fact that I keeping wanting to call it There's Something About You (perhaps due to the unfortunate parallel with '90s sex comedy There's Something About Mary) I just wasn’t sure how the title went with the book. It doesn’t really suggest, well, FBI agents or (Assistant) US Attorneys.
Obviously judging books by their titles is just as foolish as judging them by their covers (although not quite proverbially so), but the title Something About You conjures up a heartwarming story about a guy and a girl who have some kind of quirky chance encounter and get together after a series of unfortunate misadventures. Possibly involving a dog. It doesn't really suggest a story about an Assistant US Attorney who overhears a murder and is thrown back into contact with an FBI Agent who falsely believes that she ruined his career three years ago. Unless the current title is an abbreviation, and it was originally called Something About You Made Me Think, Three Years Ago, That You Had Intentionally Ruined My Career Because I Insulted You On Television, When In Fact You Had Not.
The other unusual thing about the book is that, rather than being dedicated to a friend, partner, or family member, it is dedicated to “The jokers in the room next to me at the JW Marriott San Francisco—As you kept me awake with your antics, this is the book I wrote in my head.”
To which I say: Fair play to you, Julie James. More people should respond to life's irritations by writing novels in which the people who irritated them get brutally murdered.
So yes, sticking to the age-old strategy of writing what you know, Ms. James begins Something About You with her heroine in a hotel being kept awake by her neighbours having noisy sex. She is woken up again by almost-but-not-quite-the-same noises at three in the morning and, when she goes to the spyhole to see who has been keeping her up so late, she inadvertently catches a glimpse of a murderer leaving a crime scene.
Things evolve quickly from there. It turns out that the first set of noises that emanated from the room next door were caused by a senator having sex with a prostitute, while the second set of noises were caused by somebody else murdering said prostitute. For those who are keeping count, that's two out of three of the Romantic Suspense novels I've read so far that have opened with dead callgirls. Now I do appreciate that unregulated sex work is dangerous for all sorts of reasons, but…well…other people get murdered too, and the use of working girls as go-to victims in this sort of story is a trope which is not entirely unproblematic.
Anyway, senator, dead prostitute, scandal scandal. The political angle means that the FBI get involved (it would otherwise be a straight-up murder case), and that puts Cameron back into contact with Jack Pallas, the FBI agent with whom she had been working a major mob case three years ago, and who had ultimately been demoted and posted to Dallas as a direct consequence of that case.
So far, I’ve read remarkably few romances in which the hero and heroine have an existing relationship. Perhaps that’s for the same basic reason that a lot of fantasy (particularly urban fantasy) tends to be told from the point of view of a relative ingénue, it's useful for the reader to be introduced to your central story elements at the same time your protagonists are so that they can understand what's happening as well as the characters do.
Of course the downside of this strategy is that it means you have to establish a lot very quickly and you wind up with the situation where, forty seconds after meeting the heroine, the hero suddenly becomes incapable of thinking about anything else. Jack's PoV in Something About You, therefore, made a lot more sense to me... He already knows who Cameron is, and he has some pretty good reasons to be thinking about her a lot because she's a witness in his case, and because he blames her for wrecking his life. And the way his anger towards her gets tangled up with his attraction to her feels emotionally plausible. You don’t get that thing where you’re saying to yourself “well yes, I get that he/she is hot, but don't you have some other rather more pressing concerns, like the murder/terrorists/crazy faery king?” In Pallas's case, however, Cameron is so intimately bound up with basically everything that's going on in his life—both in her current status as a witness and in the wider context of his career—that it makes perfect sense that his thoughts will keep coming back to her no matter the circumstances.
I mean, don't get me wrong. Boinking the witness you're supposed to be protecting, when you were specifically brought in because she's already had a gun to her head and the detectives protecting her weren't up to the job, isn't exactly the height of professionalism, but the book does a good job of maintaining a kind of plausible deniability. I think the basic rule is that if you have the characters say that they definitely can't do something often enough, it's okay when they eventually do it.
Jack is a very striking hero. He’s pretty alpha, but not in an asshole way. He’s kind of over-protective but it’s kind of what he’s there for. And, apart from their past disagreements, he seemed to respect Cameron's ability to do her job and her right to live her life. That said, his backstory is almost parodically over the top. The last time he and Cameron met, they'd been trying to prosecute this big mob boss called Martino. Jack had been undercover in Martino's gang, but his cover had been blown, and he'd wound up being captured and tortured. He escaped because one of the gangsters in charge of capturing and torturing him made the mistake of untying Jack's hands so that he could stab a kitchen knife through his arm. This gave Jack the opportunity to escape, using a knife that he had pulled out of his own arm in order to stab his captor to death, then stealing the guy's gun and shooting another seven dudes.
Now for what it's worth, Jack's torture at the hands of Martino and his gang is actually played very straight most of the time, and one of the things that I found most interesting about the book was the fact that he seems to be genuinely affected by the experience, and Cameron treats the subject very sensitively with him. But he still escaped a gangland torture dungeon and shot seven dudes with a stolen gun that he held in his one good hand.
So umm, yeah. Don't screw with Jack Pallas, because he will shoot your ass.
The actual plot is relatively straightforward. It isn't really a mystery at all. You get scenes from the killer's PoV a few chapters in, and in a funny way you get the impression that catching the killer isn't really on anybody's agenda. This sounds like it would be annoying, but it actually makes a lot of sense in context. The FBI are involved because the crime had a blackmail angle and a senator was implicated, so it feels like their primary concern wasn't so much catching a killer as making sure a senator didn't get stuck with a murder rap. And for that all they needed was Cameron to stay alive, they didn't actually need to solve the crime per se. There's a sort of unstated assumption that there is an investigation going on in the background, but since the identity of the killer isn't a mystery to the reader, and it's established fairly clearly that the cops basically have nothing to go on except Cameron's extremely vague description there's no real expectation that it will bear fruit. Instead the central narrative tension comes from the need to keep Cameron safe, and of course from her relationship with Jack (and, secondarily, from her relationships with her friends, of whom more later).
Thinking about it, I also weirdly liked the killer. He was a dick, of course, but in suspense (romantic or otherwise) there's a tendency to dial up the nastiness of the villain to the point at which they become almost cartoonish. While the killer in Something About You was unpleasant, he wasn't gratuitously evil. He basically killed one person because she tried to double-cross him, then tried to kill the only witness. He does reflect briefly on how awesome and easy he found killing people, but at no point is it suggested that he's going to transform into a misogynistic serial killer. In a strange way, I could sort of could sort of empathise with his decisions—not so far as to condone murder, but he came across believably as a man who had got himself into a bad situation, and was mostly just panicking (ironically he'd probably have got away with the initial murder if he hadn't tried to silence the witness).
All of this adds up to a plot that is tense, tightly paced, and well grounded a set of believable characters. Which is, y'know, pretty cool.
There’s also an excellent supporting cast. Cameron has two friends whom she's known since college, and they're both well articulated and interesting. Amy is currently in the middle of planning her wedding, and gives a good impression of at once being meaningfully part of the heroine's life and also clearly having her own stuff going on. Then there's Collin, who manages to be a Gay Best Friend without falling particularly into Gay Best Friend stereotypes—he's a sports writer, he's not remotely effeminate (not that there's anything wrong with men, gay or otherwise, being effeminate) and he's clearly into Guy Stuff. Plus he gets his own relationship arc over the course of the story in which he splits up and gets back together with his boyfriend and while it's very off-page, there's no sense that the book doesn't take it seriously.
Just as Cameron has her friends, Jack has his partner Wilkins. Wilkins was pretty cool, although there were times it wasn’t clear what the author was trying to do with him. He's nicely distinct from Jack—he's African-American, uses four-dollar words and has eclectic interests, including Collin's sports column and romantic comedies. At times his character seemed almost metatextual. There's a bit about 38% of the way into the Kindle edition when Jack is telling him that Cameron met another man at the mall, and Wilkins responds by telling Jack that he might be in trouble because Cameron's had a Meet Cute with another guy. I mean, how can you not love a dude who talks about the events in the book he appears in using appropriate genre terminology?
Seriously I would totally read a Wilkins spinoff.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Something About You: Never miss your best friend's wedding, even if you might get murdered. If you capture Jack Pallas, leave his hands tied and keep him away from sharp objects. If you commit a crime, and there's only one witness, and you don't know if she can identify you, trying to murder her probably isn't the best plan.
Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.