Sunday, February 26, 2012

Into the Darkness

Into the Darkness, by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's blurb:
Meg Venturi never expected the windfall she inherits when her grandfather dies. For some unknown reason the eccentric old millionaire has left her his profitable antique jewelry business. But there is a catch. Meg must share the business with an aloof, mysterious, and somewhat sinister young man called A. L. Riley. The town is whispering about her enigmatic new partner. Rumors spread about unspoken secrets, a dark and disturbing legacy . . . and murder. Soon a series of troubling events has Meg looking uncomfortably over her shoulder. The longer she stays in this tiny New England village the clearer two very troubling truths become: that all that glitters is definitely not gold . . . and that someone will stop at nothing to drive her away. 

Quick Overall Impression:

I found this novel much more enjoyable to read and satisfying in conclusion than the first two Barbara Michaels I tried-- The Dark on the Other Side and Someone in the House.  It is also has less of a paranormal leaning than either of those; take that for what it's worth.  Though I wasn't always fond of the main character-- ok, I actually don't really like Meg at all-- and correctly guessed the bad guy early on, the story held my interest pretty well-- and even though I did guess the identity of the bad guy, there was enough uncertainty and waffling back and forth that I wasn't confident in my guess.  (A good thing, since otherwise, it would've been boring.)

Observations, Commentary, Etc.:

•  The book shares its title with at least a couple of other books, one of which is a V.C. Andrews novel.  When listing the title on a couple of blogs' "Currently Reading" list, I found myself thinking, "I don't want people thinking I'm reading that book..."  Not that I've ever read anything of hers before... and maybe I'd even like them if I did (one of the reasons I never have-- fear of that outcome)... but based on an old school-day friend's play-by-play description of some of them, I think of them as scandalous "trashy" books-- uncensored soap operas of the raunchy variety.  ...So obviously I'm not above book snobbery.  (Sorry.)

•  Reading this book, it helps if you like jewelry. It's not a requirement, but you might enjoy it more if gems and settings don't bore you to tears, because there's a fair bit of jewelry talk. Even the analogies are peppered with gems! (It's clear that Barbara Michaels had fun writing those.)

•  The book was published in 1990, I think, and the main character, Meg, feels like a 1980s feminist.  That means there's a lot of (irritating) "Why can't he treat me like an equal?"-- "I'm not some weak little female who doesn't know her own mind!"-- "I am woman; hear me roar!" type of thoughts, reactions, and comments.  Occasionally, the (male and female) characters do treat her in a maddening "protecting the little lady"/"we know what's best for you, dear" way, but after a while it gets annoying to return yet again to the same issue.  She seems more than blunt enough to just tell them to butt out and mind their own business-- once and for all.  Unfortunately, until late in the novel, she doesn't-- or at least, not boldly enough to assure they get the point.  (Incidentally, I think this sort of frequent reference to feminist, "men rarely treat us women as true equals" thinking is very common in this author's work, from what I've read and recall of it.)

  "But I haven't the faintest..." Meg caught herself.  "Sorry, Uncle George.  I sound like some bleating little female twit."  UGH.  Wow, Meg.  Way to belittle your own sex.  I hereby revoke your status as a feminist. 

•  Meg curses-- not "creatively" or fluently, but frequently.  It might not have caught my attention if she weren't always cursing over every little thing.  Someone says something mildly annoying?  What the hell do they mean by that?  Can't find her sunglasses in her purse?  Well, where the hell are they?  (And so on.)  Newsflash, Meg:  Saying "hell" a lot doesn't make you a Cool Kid.  It only makes you sound obnoxious.

•  I wasn't sure how I felt about the housekeeper who acts like various different "styles" of housekeepers throughout literary and cinematic history...  (She's Mrs. Danvers one day, "kindly old Hannah, the loyal servant of the March family" the next, and then there's the fake Irish brogue-- which reminds me inevitably of Judy Plum.  Good old Judy.  I need to reread Pat of Silverbush again...)   Frances' "roles" are funny, but it's also irritating when she's being the heavy-handed Mrs. Danvers.  Maybe Meg should've turned her feminist rage in Frances' direction... Also, if Frances were a real person, I might have concerns regarding her mental stability. (g)

•  "Embonpoint" = plumpness or stoutness.  This word may come in handy if I don't succeed in my plans for weight-loss.  ;o)

•  There's reference to a "stout elderly woman with a face like that of a Cabbage Patch doll".  As a former owner of a Cabbage Patch doll, hilarious.  

•  Odd that Meg calls her grandfather by first name (Dan), yet her grandmother is "Gran".  I suppose Dan just wanted everyone to call him by first name (since it seems that everyone does), but I've never really understood that practice of calling parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents by first name only.  It feels awkward.  Too much a traditionalist, I guess. 

•  In sharp contrast to Meg, Gran is a little too delicate and feminine.  (And Michael is a little too picky about characters.)  Gran is a bit too posh, prim, precious, ladylike, and sheltered-- and far too obsessed with fashion and jewelry.  She feels more like a spoiled child than a strong matriarch-- or even a woman.  Then there's this: "Mary (Gran) peered at him.  She was a trifle nearsighted, but would have rather risked falling and breaking her neck than wear glasses."  That settles it:  Gran is an awful person.  ;o)  But really, as a bespectacled woman, I find that sort of nonsense extremely offensive. 

•  "Like many of her generation she was computer-literate."  This sort of thing makes me laugh, even though I know it shouldn't.  It's not that long since being "computer-literate" wasn't assumed for the "younger generation"-- but still I laugh. 

•  "...bottles of low-brow mustard and catsup."  You know what?  I think I despise people who think of mustard and ketchup (my preferred spelling) as either low- or high-brow.  Ugh.  Srsly, people. It's a condiment.  

•  There was a reference to mobcaps.  I looked it up and thought to myself, "So that's what they call those."  The etymology of the word is odd, though, since a "mob" was a slatternly or loose-living woman.  

•  I am jealous of the fancy, themed gardens with the full-time staff of gardeners to tend them.  It would be nice to only need to do the fun parts of the gardening-- and that only when you were in the mood for it!

•  "Childishly secretive"... Are children so secretive?  I wasn't aware... 

•  Meg's distaste for guns-- Isn't that the sort of weak-minded, emotional reaction you'd expect from a sniveling little female twit?  Very troubling.  

•  "Comestible"-- one of those words I rarely read-- and never hear or think of on my own.  But I kind of like it.  Even though it looks like "combustible". 

•  The reference to Wilkie Collins (and The Moonstone) = ♥.

•  The fact that Meg parted from Nick (who "was so sensitive about his ears") with the words "live long and prosper" almost makes up for her character flaws.  Almost.  ;o)

•  "Just because a man was persecuted didn't mean he was innocent, or virtuous."  

•  "Artistic persons often lack the social graces."  Ooh, does the reverse also hold true?  Because if so, I must be artistic!  How exciting!

•  "(Some ancient figure) had never had to worry about nuclear war or the depletion of the ozone layer, but it was the ordinary human tragedies that wore people down-- death and loss, pain and disease."  Well, and add to that the fact that they had their own major worries, I'm sure-- and the fact that much of the Big Worries we occupy ourselves with never end up happening... or sort of just fade away over time, replaced by new Big Worries.  (I mean, when's the last time you heard or thought about the ozone layer?)

•  I dislike it when every marriageable male in the book flirts with / proposes to Our Heroine.  "She reminded herself that ______ had no idea this was the second proposal of marriage she had received in less than a week... Nor could he possibly know that marriage, to any man, was the last thing she wanted."  (Oh yes.  How tiresome of the men, troubling her with their silly little proposals!  Back before I was married, I always hated it when I received more than one proposal in the space of less than a week!)  Okay, it's one of two things:  Either these men (not just in this book, but in so many others) are nuts for proposing to women they barely know or are not on such intimate terms with... or the women are not doing a good job of expressing their feelings toward said men-- possibly even leading them on cruelly with casual flirtation.  There are some exceptions (particularly clueless men who won't take a hint), but most of the time, a woman can tell when a man likes her, and if she knows she's not interested, she can find a polite, gentle way of letting him know early on that she's not open to his advances.  But I guess if you do that, you won't be able to brag to your great-grandchildren about your many proposals of marriage.  *shrug*

Also, I don't like it when everyone is constantly pressing food on Ms. Heroine.  "Eat something!  You're too thin!  Eat something!  Put some meat on those bones!"  Poor Meg.  She's not chubby enough?  I have a few pounds to spare, if she's interested in a swap...  Oh, and then when she does finally want to eat a cookie or sandwich, Gran's like the food police, scolding her for daring to eat something before everyone (read: Gran) has come down to tea.  

•  "People who have face-lifts should learn not to blush, Meg thought, watching her old friend's face."  First, what a good friend Meg is!  Second, does blushing show up a face-lift?  I never knew!

•  Meg can be super catty about other young women!  For example, "Debbie, decked out in her Sears' Sunday best..."  Then there's this:  "Candy's smile looks like a bloody gash across her cheeks, rimmed with the blurred crimson of lipstick." And "Her cheeks turned an ugly shade of magenta." 

•  The references to Egypt and mummies are so frequent that it's impossible to miss them.  I assume this was an intentional joke, considering that the author wrote a series of books (under another pen name) about a group of archeologists in Egypt.  My favorite:  "Her cookies had been rock hard, studded with raisins so petrified they might have come out of an Egyptian tomb..."  

•  There's a scene where Meg watches "in amusement" while an old friend gets a cola for her, while the other adults in the room are drinking liquor.  I guess it's funny enough in the context of everyone else drinking and her not even being offered alcohol (until he catches himself)-- but it also reminds me that (imho) it's kind of strange that in so many books, movies, TV shows, everyone drinks alcohol so frequently.  Do most people really drink that much?  In my family, cocktails were never served; there were no offers of scotch or brandy.  Some people might drink beer or wine sometimes at home-- but not at casual family gatherings.  It just strikes me as odd that it's assumed that now that Meg's an adult she must want alcohol (and she does).  Cola's for kids, apparently, so that must mean I'm young at heat. (g)

•  So, there's a man who makes a crack about his own wife hanging around some other (unmarried) man's place of business all the time-- so the unmarried man punches the guy... for besmirching his own wife's honor.  It seems a little unlikely, doesn't it?  The unmarried guy is too good to be true-- but also kind of stupid.  What's punching the man going to do to help his wife?  At the end of the day, she's still married to a jerk. Chances are he'll just take it out on her when he gets home that night. 

•  Reference to The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle.  "A brother and sister buy an old house on the coast of Cornwall.  It is haunted of course.  But I won't tell you any more, you must read it for yourself."  Ok, Barbara Michaels (through the medium of Gran).  I'll admit, you've piqued my interest.  I'll look for it. 

•  "Even the mechanical distortion of the telephone couldn't conceal the satisfaction in Darren's voice."  Is there any mechanical distortion over the phone?  It might be more likely over a cell phone, but (modern) landlines don't seem to distort voices that much.

•  "Her actions from now on would resemble those of a player in a computer game, trying to shoot down the bright, darting shapes of an enemy while at the same time avoiding their shots at her."  That whole sentence just feels wrong to me.  Trying to be modern with the analogy to a computer game, perhaps?

•  "Rod wasn't much of a gardener.  The hedge was untrimmed, the lawn needed mowing."  Well, excuse them for not having a staff of full-time gardeners.  Like Meg has ever had to dirty her hands in the garden or lift a rake in her life!  (Ok, an unkempt yard looks bad, but Meg is such a snob at times.)  

•  The cover looks (and the title sounds) much more sinister and creepy than most of the story feels. 

SPOILERy Notes, Comments, Etc.:

•  I noticed that the bad guy was suspiciously nice to Meg on the 29th page of the book.  Impressed?  ;o)  Ok, but as I wrote before, I wasn't certain until the Shocking Revelation Scene near the end.  So it's not quite as impressive, after all.   

•  Meg's "affair" with a "married but separated" man (with teenaged children) is just yuck.  (If he's separated, it sounds like maybe his wife would know or just not care he was with Meg, but they seem very secretive about it, which leads me to believe that for some reason, it's secret.  Thus I think of it as an affair and not a relationship that began a little too early-- i.e. before an impending divorce was filed.)  I'll never understand that mentality.  Though of course I don't condone it, I can understand what leads to a brief, ill-advised fling*, but to stay in a prolonged relationship, long after the initial insanity has passed, knowing full well it's going nowhere-- has no way of developing into something permanent-- is bizarre.  *I'm pretty sure I'd still kick a dude to the curb if he cheated on me, no matter how briefly.  Zero tolerance for that sort of thing.  

•  I guess Riley had to keep quiet for most of the book in order for there to be a story... but it seems weird how his reserve suddenly and completely falls away.  Too bad Riley and Meg couldn't have behaved like normal people and hashed everything out a couple hundred pages earlier.  

•  Riley's description of Meg as "tough and kind and funny and smart and a fighter"... (and beautiful, too, that came first)... Yeah.  Meg's just perfect.  *snort*  Of course, Riley's got his own issues, so... 

•  "She had visited him once in the hospital, bearing the conventional gifts of flowers and candy-- which she knew Riley would despise as much as she did."  Despise?  That's a little strong, isn't it?  How charming of them both, despising the conventional gifts that may be good enough for common people, but not for them.  Candy?  Paugh!  Flowers?  Oh, barf.  They require something extraordinary from their visitors, I guess. 

•  So, I was right to almost immediately decide that George was too good to be true (except when it came to his oddly harsh treatment of his own son).  It seems unrealistic that he could hide his true nature so well for so long-- especially when living under the same roof as the family he had destroyed.  They ate daily meals with the man!  I think you'd be able to tell that he wasn't a normal person, after a while.  

•  George is supposedly an alcoholic-- but one of those rare alcoholics who contain their impulses until convenient, "acceptable" times.  He only went on weekend binges.  ...Only, isn't it part of the definition of an alcoholic that he loses control of his impulses and indulges in drunkenness even when it's not appropriate to drink?  Another oddity. 

•  The romantic banter at the end is nice, but it feels strange after Riley's long reserve and grumpiness.  

•  So, at the end, we have this happy couple, madly in love with one another, and we're invited to revel in their new-found passion.  But... what about poor Cliff?  He's just learned that his father's a murderer-- and even worse, that he killed Cliff's loving step-mother.  I understand why the author didn't want to dwell on that right before the end of the book, but it wasn't even mentioned.  Poor Cliff. 

•  George says he wants to arrange things so that Cliff will inherit everything... So why does he seem to have such a strained relationship with his precious son?  Or was he just going to use his son as a convenient point of access to the inheritance?  

•  So let me get this straight... Dan knew-- but couldn't prove-- that George had cheated on one of Dan's daughters with the other... then murdered one daughter and the other son-in-law (Dan's precious protégé)... eventually leading to the suicide-by-alcohol of his other daughter.  And he allowed this man to stay under his roof-- the roof he shares with his delicate wife-- the roof he knows his grand-daughter will return to, upon his death.  I can't recall if Dan knew he was likely to die soon, but he was an old man, so he had to know it was a possibility.  It seems extremely unlikely and irresponsible for Dan to leave those he loved most in harm's way.  Possibly you could explain it away by saying he wanted to keep his enemy close... or that pushing him out into the cold would have riled him up and made him more dangerous... or that he didn't suspect he was still a serious threat to those living, so long as he thought they didn't suspect him... but those all seem like very weak arguments-- the weakest part of the whole plot, in my opinion. 


All those nit-picks aside, I did enjoy reading the book.  I'll return to Barbara Michaels for more, eventually, and I'll definitely look for The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle!