You pick the book up marveling at its glossy cover, the muscled-scowling-bare-chested man dominating it and you suck a breath in. It’s not like you aren’t used to seeing half-naked men on the covers of your coveted romance novels – business men with ties dangling between hard pecs, their shirt wide open or denim-clad, leather-pants-wearing bad boys. But there is something about this man – despite the suit jacket draped over his shoulders – that makes you hesitate to buy it. ‘Dangerous’ enters your mind and rolls around on your tongue like liquid silk dipped in chocolate, tempting you to take a chance. You glance nervously about making sure the aisle is empty before daring to turn the book over and read the blurb, hands shaking.
A popular hero archetype I see within Romance is that of the Bad Boy. The hero who flies in the face of society norms and skirts the edges of the law. They are easily identified by their gruffness, coarse language, tattoos and the roar of a motorbike – the bigger the better. Men who wear denim and leather like billionaires wear their tailored suits, but maybe with less dry cleaning and accessorised with rips instead of ties. They prefer to be alone and don’t trust anyone easily, especially people in any form of authority. But as I read their stories I soon find that they are simply misunderstood souls, giant teddy bears in need of a little guidance and love to see them head down the correct path and find redemption.
Sometimes this Bad Boy can be found disguised in a suit. They glower across boardroom tables and demand obedience, loyalty from all who work for them, but will cast their employees aside on a mere whim. Cold-hearted, they don’t care who lives they stampeded through on their way to increasing the bottom line and keep everyone at arm’s reach… even further away than that. They don’t believe in love. Don’t believe in anything. So, when love catches them they fall hard.
Your first thought as you finish reading the blurb is to shove the book back on the shelf and put distance between it and you. You don’t even care if it goes back in the correct place, maybe that would be better, then no one else could read it. Hands burning the longer it remains clutched in your grasp with the dangerous heat it contains and it isn’t what you would normally chose to read. Not this one. Not one with a man so flawed he views the law as optional, an ill-written prescription for living and they chose willfully to disobey it.
I delve deeper into this archetype and the first of the anti-heroes appear, men who don’t simply play at being bad. Often, they wear denim, leather and ride motorbikes down the road in intimidating packs. Family, brotherhood is as important to them as the crimes they commit – drugs, violence and stolen goods…if it’s illegal and makes money they’ll do it. Redemption doesn’t come so easily at least not to the rest of society. Doesn’t mean an author won’t try to make the reader believe that these Bad Boys are nothing more than pussy cats masquerading as tigers, who only need the right person to walk into their lives and miraculously tame them.
This… this can’t be a romance? A man like this can’t be a hero, someone capable of love… and yet, you don’t place it back on the shelf.
Curious. Fascinated. You want to know more, to learn how a man so flawed and unredeemable to society – and revels in it – can fall in love. It can’t be possible. Maybe the book was simply mis-shelved. Yes. Yes, that must be it. That is why you can’t put it back, needing to pass it on the store assistant and get shelved correctly. You reassure yourself of this, walking to the counter and placing it down, but the words don’t come out. You push the book forward, eyes not meeting the assistants gaze as you pay for it and walk out of the store with paper-bagged book tucked under your arm. Compelled to read it. Wanting to discover the darkness lurking in its pages.
Deeper into the archetype I continue to dig and stumble across men who wear tailored suits like billionaires – well they are, just don’t dare ask them how they make their money – but this is no ordinary boardroom. This is the world of organised crime where the men of the Mafia, Irish Mob and sometimes the Yakuza or Bratva hang out. Groups steeped in culture and tradition as much as they are blood. Where honour and family – loyalty – are as important as the deals they make. Complex organisations that run like corporations, except debts might be paid with your life.
Page after page you turn, the story drawing you deeper in, its darkness engulfing you like a warm comfy blanket and you try not to think about how easily you have succumbed to its dangerous allure. But have you really? You slam the book shut, chest heaving in terror – excitement – as the hero’s dangerous side reveals itself in all its terrifying glory. It doesn’t feel right to describe them as bad. Evil? Maybe a little bit closer and yet you can’t help recognise the hero is a complex mix of contradictions with a hint being weaved through the story that he is capable of caring. NO. It isn’t possible. You don’t want to believe it. A man as heartless, cold as this cannot fall in love.
But Romance is changing. Stories of Bad Boys are beginning to emerge where their redemption isn’t guaranteed – isn’t aimed for. Instead of saving the Bad Boys from themselves, Romance stories are appearing which say Bad boys can fall in love. Okay sure I know they’ve already been falling in love, but now they can do so without giving up their wicked ways. Mafia, Yakuza and infamous Motorcycle gang members are falling in love and not casting aside their lives of crime. Continue to play fast and loose with the law; put their loved ones in danger and maybe corrupt them along the way, because why the hell not.
Taking a deep breath, you open the book again, fingers eager to turn each page and read. ‘Redemption’ you whisper, ‘redemption must be what enables it.’ You cling to the idea, the belief that the hero – anti-hero will find forgiveness for their past deeds, actively seek it out all in the name of love. Love will force them to live a good wholesome life. ‘Yes, that must be it’ you cry. Other books you’ve read with flawed heroes – though nowhere near as flawed as this one – found redemption and love, so this anti-hero must do that too.
Redemption. Forgiveness. I didn’t expect to find them in stories like this, when these men don’t care how society views them. But it does. They find redemption within their society – receive it from their lovers for whatever deeds they’ve done that may have placed them in danger. Forgiveness is personal, one built around family, honour and loyalty. They don’t want to be saved, content to be who they are even if society reviles them. They only want to be loved.
Except with each page you read, you can see no sign of him questioning his actions or wondering if they should give up this criminal life. Instead they are growing darker as a character, their love pushing them further to step away from the law and remain in the shadows as the one they love is threatened by an equally dangerous man. You grip the book tight, caught between the need to root for their love and your desire for them to become an upstanding member of society and not remain this… morally repugnant and yet passionately complicated man.
Dark romances are building in popularity and contain more than criminal lovers. The reality of their worlds is shown to readers in greater detail, giving them a deeper look in their minds. Darkness no longer covered in tooth rotting amounts of sugar to make it more palatable. I can see the fists fly, the knives stab and the wide-eyed look as someone stares down at the blood pouring from a bullet wound in shock. I can hear them laugh at another’s pain and hear the threats that give.
Sneaking back to the bookstore several days later, an itch for another story like the one you’ve just read crawling beneath your skin. You glance over your shoulder as you stand in front of the shelves, still not wanting anyone to see as you grab another romance imbued with darkness. The half-naked man gracing the cover with his fearsomely beautiful tattooed skin and a dangerous sneer. This. This is the one you’ll read next, the man you will hate and yet cheer him on as he seeks love.
Naomi writes about men who have a complicated relationship with the law and the men they fall in love with.
Tokyo Nights (serialised Fiction)