Dark Dominion by Charlotte Lamb was first published by Mills & Boon in 1979, though it's been reprinted in various formats and by other publishers since. The basic plot: Caroline Fox has to decide between James, the forbidding but darkly charismatic barrister she married, and fun sexy Jake, a famous actor she's known since their days at drama school together, who comes back into her life at a time of crisis in her marriage - the crisis having been precipitated by a miscarriage.
I re-read Dark Dominion last week, and was both pleasantly surprised by how gripping and un-put-downable I found it, despite the 1979 publication date, and shocked by how grim this book becomes at times. The story deals with some extremely difficult issues such as separation, rape, potential divorce, depression, miscarriage, adultery, and does not shy away from telling it 'like it is'.
Dark Dominion's genuinely dark heart made me begin to question my mother's take on the Alpha male, something I'd never really done before, perhaps having imagined in my youth that her version of the Alpha male - nearly always a hard-edged, highly driven individual whose courtship of the heroine is as much about sadism as it is about hearts and flowers - was merely a product of her times, and the specific romance genre in which she was writing.
But was it?
Thirty years on, and Kate Walker's recent blog posts on the topic of the Alpha male in category romance certainly demonstrate that times - and our expectations of romantic heroes - have changed.
Today's Alpha male may be hard-edged, but he is neither a bully nor suspect in his sexual tastes. Gone is the truly sadistic growl, the punishing kiss, the retaliatory slap - oh yes, the hero got away with hitting the heroine in a number of Lamb stories, such as Pagan Encounter and Retribution, off the top of my head - and other such dangerous delights.
I remember distinctly a key scene in the superb Call Back Yesterday, where the heroine points a rifle at the hero at point blank range, and he huskily orders her to pull the trigger, because only such an ultimate act of violence could finish what was between them. Thrilling to read, when bound up in the magic of the story, and perfect for their particular relationship. But politically correct? Absolutely not!
Dark Dominion is a hard story to read at times, yet it sparkles with romance when the sexy, drawling, Beta hero Jake is on the scene. You almost wish Jake could win his lady. But of course his lady, in this case, is already married. And that marriage triumphs in the end, because Caroline 'needs' and responds to the darkness in James' character - or so she claims:
Sweat glistened on his pale temples and dewed his back. His hands bruised and explored, their touch rough. He was taking her ruthlessly, without tenderness, but her anxiety and anger was being released into a wild, frenzied response which seemed to incite him into more and more brutal lovemaking. She knew instinctively that she needed it, that some deeply buried instinct was making her not merely accept but want the savagery of his body.
Note: After this particular scene, James insists that she leave him, because he finally recognises that his jealousy is out of control.
Someone once left a comment on this blog criticising some of Charlotte Lamb's early books as sadistic and unpleasant. I thought at the time that this critique was unfair. I am no longer quite so sure. However, that is not to say that I disapprove of these darker Lamb stories, or feel they ought not to have been written. They were immensely popular at the time of publication, and still make dynamic reading. Which suggests that they answered some kind of need in the mind of the reader, just as James' fierce lovemaking above answers a similar, unspoken need in Caroline.
So perhaps such difficult themes do speak to something in a woman's psyche, such as a secret need to be dominated - if only in the bedroom. And while that is no longer a politically correct attitude, and rightly so in most cases, there may come a day when such dangerous thoughts are back in fashion.
Until then, romantic novelists will have to comb a recalcitrant hero's hair and keep him just the right side of civilised.