Good morning, class! I’m Charlotte B., and I’ll be your professor for Legal Ethics 101. I hope everyone has done the assigned reading.
Wait – you say you didn’t sign up for law school? That this is a site about romance novels? Well, I’m sorry, friends, because today we’re discussing a romance novel – Cynthia Rayne’s Blood in the Water – whose entire plot turns on the ethical obligations of a crusading criminal defense lawyer to her odious, murderous client. Here’s the fact pattern:
Our heroine, Jane, is a defense lawyer in Dallas. Jane has recently won acquittal for an accused serial killer named Oscar Valentine. It’s obvious as soon as Valentine enters the page that he’s actually guilty – he doesn’t twirl a mustache, but only because he doesn’t have one. When he invites Jane over for a celebratory dinner, he closes out the night by revealing, in gory detail, the crimes he committed and pledging his undying love for Jane. Since he’s a Very Creepy Romance Villain, Oscar quickly escalates to burglary, stalking, assault, and (more) murders.
Jane, however, is a highly ethical person! And she did super well in law school! And thus, Jane determines that because of attorney-client privilege, she can’t tell the police that Oscar has confessed to the (horrible and thoroughly described) murders OR that he’s committed a series of crimes against her and her friends and is a clear threat to her life. Instead, she reluctantly turns to another of her clients, Hot Criminal Byron Beauregard, for protection and support. Flirting, southern accents, a road trip, and a predictable level of violence ensue.
In the mid-1970s, a man on trial for the murder of an 18-year-old hiker confessed to his lawyers that he had recently murdered two women and hidden their bodies. His lawyers found the bodies, but determined that they were prohibited by attorney-client privilege from disclosing the murders or the location of the bodies to law enforcement. When the murders eventually came out at trial, the lawyers were criminally charged and threatened with disbarment. Ultimately, however, the charges and the disbarment claim were dismissed: because the defendant had confessed to past offenses, not an intent to commit future crimes that could be prevented by disclosing the confession to law enforcement, the courts (and the New York State Bar Association) determined that the lawyers were correct in finding that they were required to keep the secret. All law students study the so-called “Buried Bodies Case,” and Jane name-checks it in Blood in the Water as the reason why Byron (who she finds to be morally repugnant, but also hot) is her only option.
Here’s the problem, my dear unwilling law students: without spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that Oscar commits a series of crimes against Jane (crimes that he doesn’t even try to cover up) and threatens to harm a number of people. No, Jane can’t tell the police about his confession to the murders, but attorney-client privilege doesn’t require Jane to keep mum about crimes where JANE HERSELF IS THE VICTIM. Nor is Jane required to stand by silently while Oscar threatens to harm other people. The entire premise on which the plot turns – that Jane can’t go to the police and thus has to turn to Byron – is wrong.
I don’t demand strict realism in romance, even when it comes to on-page lawyering. Given that I’m a sorority girl who unexpectedly found herself at an elite law school, I love Legally Blonde with an all-consuming passion, and the fact that I’m quite sure Massachusetts limited practice rules wouldn’t allow a first-year law student to cross-examine a witness in a murder trial has never interfered with my enjoyment. The problem is that, aside from the fact that the central conceit of the plot rests on a complete misconstruction of legal ethics, the romance in Blood in the Water didn’t work for me.
First, while the plot of Blood in the Water stands alone, the emotional relationship between Byron and Jane doesn’t. When the book opens, they’ve already met and the emotional dynamic (unwilling attraction on Jane’s part, lust-verging-on-love on Byron’s part) is established. There is a prior novel in this series and it’s a spinoff of a related motorcycle club-themed series, and presumably the foundation of the relationship is laid in those books. When Blood in the Water picks up, Byron and Jane are already at least 40% of the way along the arc of their romantic journey. The ultimate resolution, therefore, didn’t have the resonance that it likely would have had if I’d seen the relationship play out from the beginning.
Beyond that, though, there’s a central tension that the book never resolves. Oscar the Creepy Woman-Hating Serial Killer is clearly the villain. But Byron is also a murderer – an enthusiastic and prolific one. Byron’s crimes, however, happen offstage. We’re told he’s a mobster, but we never see what that involves. We’re supposed to see Byron as a hero, but what is the difference between Oscar and Byron? That Oscar is kind of icky while he kills people? That Oscar kills women and Byron only kills men? That for Byron, it’s business, not personal?
Perhaps if the full scope of Byron’s actions – the workaday violence of the mobster life – was present on the page, he wouldn’t be a plausible romance hero. But if a character can’t be a plausible romance hero if the book is honest about what he does for a living, maybe that character shouldn’t be a hero at all. There is a great moral cowardice in trying to make a murderer a hero by pushing his violence out of sight.
It’s worth comparing the approach in Blood in the Water to the TV show Sons of Anarchy, which focused on a California motorcycle club. Despite its myriad flaws, over the top plots, and unforgivable wide-leg pants, SOA was unflinching in the portrayal of both its protagonist’s moral qualms and his crimes. The challenge to the viewer was whether you could still care about his happiness knowing the people he’d hurt, and the conflict (on the screen and for viewers) was real.
Note: when this was posted as a sale book, a few readers noted that the crossed gun tattoos on the cover were reminiscent of a Confederate flag. I had a lot of problems with Blood in the Water, but the book doesn’t fall into Confederate apologism (just apologism for murder, if the murderer is hot). Also, Jane is described as being on the autism spectrum. I have significant experience volunteering with children with autism and the characterization didn’t feel authentic to me, but nor did it read as overtly offensive. (I can’t speak to how it would read to someone who is on the autism spectrum.) Finally, there is a plot moppet in peril, but no need to worry on that score – everyone knows plot moppets are fireproof.
The book is fairly well-written, and the emotional and romantic tension between Jane and Byron felt real, but the failure to confront the reality of Byron’s crimes ultimately made Jane feel inauthentic as a character. We are told she cares about morality and ethics, so much, in fact, that she puts her own life at risk to uphold her ethical duties to Oscar. But she is signally untroubled about tying her life to an unrepentant and premeditated criminal. In fact, in one of the final scenes, Jane cheerfully points out that as Byron’s wife, she can’t be compelled to testify against him. Legal issues aside, Blood in the Water’s complete failure to confront the moral stain on its hero was what really tanked the book for me.