“You hit him with a frying pan,” he said to her. “How come you didn’t grab a knife?”
“The frying pan was closer.” Her eyes slid away. “It’s not like I had time to pick a weapon. It’s not like the frying pan is my weapon of choice.” —Agnes And The Hitman (27)
Growing up in a town where Elvis was sighted post mortem, I despised and mocked The King. Now, I have held wakes in his honor. I used to only like punk. Then I used to say I liked everything but country. Now I don’t even bother arguing that I’m listening to “Americana,” not country. It is a truth universally acknowledged that something I once despised I will come to appreciate and, often, love. So when both Chris and alex recommended Jennifer Crusie, the author of many romance novels, and in particular her collaboration with Bob Mayer, Agnes And The Hitman, I knew I needed to read it.
Like many a horrible child, I despised romance novels. I have made easy jokes. I have snickered at romance covers at the grocery store. And I have been foolish enough not only to judge a book by its cover, but to dismiss an entire genre because of those covers. Some of it was likely internalized sexism. Fortunately, romance readers and writers are are a lot less pissy about their dismissal than some lovers of other genres. They just write hilarious blogs and quietly keep the publishing industry going.
At The Cultural Gutter we try to find the value in disreputable art, and romance is almost never reputable, even to genre fans. In fact, it’s almost always respectable only when it’s labeled as something else. And while romance has infiltrated other genres, seemingly undetected, very few want their science fiction, fantasy, horror or comics confused with romance or contaminated by its cooties. It’s a big part of the hate for Twilight and paranormal romance in general. (Though horror fans don’t seem to want to reclaim paranormal romance—no matter how sexy vampires have been since Dracula). Not even Nicholas Sparks wants anything to do with romance and he writes romance novels.
When I started writing for The Gutter, I hadn’t read romance marketed as romance, but I had finally read Jane Austen and the Brontë’s after reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea in college. And I had realized the foolishness of past me. It’s foolish to despise a genre for its conventions or to think that all the shittiness of writing is safely contained in one conveniently avoidable place. And by then, I knew that I really enjoy character-driven stories, genre-bending and hitmen. And I’m kind of fascinated by collaboration. So when Chris described how well-written Agnes And The Hitman is—emphasizing its humor, dialog and characterization—and alex added his take on the story as a comedy of errors, comparing it to Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing Of The Dog, I was sold.
Agnes And The Hitman is cohesive and charming. It’s tightly plotted with at least two conspiracies and one central mystery, but still has time for breakfast, the frying pan as a weapon of choice, flamingos, fight scenes and an old dog named, Rhett. Also, sex.
Agnes Crandall is a columnist and cookbook writer with anger issues and a court-appointed psychologist. She’s trying to hold a wedding for her best friend’s daughter at Two Rivers, the house she’s just mortgaged from her friend’s mother. If the wedding happens, she can keep the house, help set up her fiancé Taylor’s catering business and collaborate with him on a cookbook. She thinks Taylor is the normal guy she needs—and that he’ll look great on a book cover. But there are problems—fussing over the wedding; an attempted dognapping; and someone wants to kill Agnes. Agnes’ friend Joey, a retired mobster, sends for his nephew, Shane, to come and keep an eye on her. Shane’s a hitman hunting another assassin. And this big mass of trouble is all headed for the wedding.
To Do List, she thought. Feed cast of thousands, several of whom are killers and one of whom is an underage dognapper now living illegally in my barn. Plan flamingo wedding. Remember not to screw hitman’s brains out again even though he’s really hot. Find nice normal guy without gun permit….Take revenge on the sleazy bitch who’s trying to swindle me out of my dream house. (139)
I like hitman stories, but one of the things I love about Agnes And The Hitman is that it is so hard to pin down generically. Is it “screwball comedy,” “contemporary fiction,” a “mystery,” “crime fiction,” a “gangster story,” a “thriller” with romance elements, or a “romantic thriller?” The library calls the book, “fiction,” but I really don’t care. One of the pleasures of genre is in the deft and effortless use of conventions. But there’s fun to be had in seeing writers dump a bunch of genres and conventions into a blender and hit frappé.
Crusie usually writes romance and Mayer usually writes thrillers and science fiction. They have a good thing going in Agnes And The Hitman, though. It’s a great example of how two writers can blend their skills together to create something new, something that neither would’ve created—or possibly even conceived of—on their own.
And right now it’s that theme of collaboration that comes through for me. Agnes and Shane both have clear plans to clear goals. Agnes’ meticulous to-do lists keep getting compromised by changes in wedding plans, people breaking into her house, and starting to like a guy whose “skill set is upsetting.” Exactly three people have Shane’s cellphone number: his boss; his cleaner and his Uncle Joey. After Joey calls Shane, Agnes becomes the fourth person with his number and Shane starts violating his standard operating procedure: not checking his perimeter, opening his armored SUV’s window for Rhett. But even while both their lives are apparently falling apart, they’re building something together:
Shane’s life was crumbling at the edges, but in the middle was Agnes, making love and breakfast, wanting him to come home to her, and a big old dog, keeping his toes warm. Screw the edges, he thought[.] (249)
I really appreciate that, because so much of life is out of control and unplanned. And not only is it fine that it’s not clearly defined, it’s interesting to see how it goes. I could never have guessed that I would be here at The Cultural Gutter, writing about what might or might not be a romance novel. I never would’ve guessed what we’ve made together here, from the editors before my time till now. And I never would’ve guessed that we would some develop editorial positions beyond our mandate—we like effortless writing and good characterization; we have zombie fatigue; we think Zach Snyder makes unpleasant movies; and we think Agnes And The Hitman is a very fun book.
Carol Borden might not be much for breakfast, but she likes a good story.
n April, the Guttersnipes like to mix it up a little. This month, Comics Editor Carol Borden writes about romance. This article was original published at The Cultural Gutter on Apr. 26, 2013.