I happened upon Beverly Barton’s books only recently, and then only because I read an article on her untimely death. I wish I had run across her sooner because now whatever I say takes on a kind of criticism of sacred ground. Even so, I’d like to offer an opinion on what I considered a writer in transition.
Underlying Beverly Barton’s recent stories is a language of deep contradictions. She loved to do two story lines simultaneously: one where relationships bloom and attraction springs slowly into being; the other where hatred grows and deepens and violence escalates in the extreme. Rather than weave these two elements together, she chose to separate them in a way that heightens the tension in each polarity.
The problem is that sometimes, by the time she brings them together at the end, the essential and often cataclysmic epiphany that each character achieves has often been defused by an endlessly repetitious thematic development. How many times can a character cycle through saying I love you…oh wait, I can’t really love you…oh, you can’t really love me without losing all the emotional tension in the lines. In the last book I read, the evil character had invented so many ways of killing and torturing his victims that I became convinced that these scenes were more about the violence itself rather than the results of the violence.
Why care? Well, I couldn’t find the romance anywhere in these books. Not anywhere. I found plenty of sex and enough violence to make James Patterson flinch. I found enough blood and sliced flesh to establish a meat market. I didn’t find scary, only a vague sense of sorrow. In short, Beverly Barton seemed like a writer in transition from Romance to something else. I can’t help but think that her editor let her down. I can’t really think that Barton had any association with actual violence. If she had, I think her descriptions of decapitation would have been more personal—I mean, getting one’s head chopped off is about as personal as possible.
The other thing that is telling is the lack of a sense of place. Memphis, Tennessee and Knoxville, Tennessee, two settings for three books, come to mind. How can you set an entire book in Memphis without seeing the River or the jazz clubs? How can you miss the place of Elvis Presley’s la vivre.
And Knoxville. What about those beautiful river valleys and huge lakes, the mountains to the north and the lush greenness of everything? It’s the smell of green. The smells and sounds of the great Mississippi and Jazz are part of what makes Memphis a unique city. Both are landscapes providing plenty of opportunity for romance, and plenty of opportunity for slowly escalating suspense.
But we are led away from this into poorly understood, emotionally immature sexual encounters and fantasies of violent murder that the CIA might do well to include in its case studies. I’m coming back to the role of the editor. Beverly Barton had an interesting vision that peeks through the opacity of her language. I think we can only regret that it never quite made it into her stories.