One of my joys as a reader is to keep my pulse on the ever-changing female protagonist. Generally, I focus on the strengths of the female within the action and fantasy genres, but for this post, I’ll be looking at Bliss Moonbeam Cornwall, the female protagonist of Gloria Ferris’ Shroud of Roses, a Cornwall and Redfern novel, published by Dundurn Press.
Mystery is not my genre of choice, but I’ve read Corpse Flower and Shroud of Roses by Gloria Ferris, and have thoroughly enjoyed both novels because of the outrageous antics the main protagonist, Bliss gets up to. She’s a meddling, sometimes intuitive, self-made detective who won’t listen to orders, especially those delivered by a man in uniform. (I’m not talking the postman here).
I’m no psychologist, but I’d have to say Bliss needs an intervention. Or does she? Perhaps my own gender bias needs the intervention to thoroughly process and examine Bliss to determine whether I’m applying limiting expectations to a female character and her ensuing romance.
Shroud of Roses is a Mystery, but has a sub-genre of Romance. Generally, the romance in a novel fulfills a list of genre tropes, but author, Ferris, is not bound by these common elements. Bliss’ unique characterization is delivered through a number of fun and quirky relationships that do not follow conventions. For this writing, I’m specifically going to focus on her love interest.
Shroud of Roses begins when a well-decomposed body is found in a locker in the town’s high school. Clues lead to the date of the disappearance, and the main character, Bliss, realizes the murder took place sometime during her high school prom, many years before. In Bliss’ not so humble opinion, this gives her every right to begin her own investigation, even though Police Chief, Neil Redfern, has forbidden her to interfere.
This is interesting characterization, right off the bat. A woman decides she is going to do something and no one, not even the police force can deter her. That takes quite a bit of personal confidence and a pretty complete disregard for authority. Not your typical literary female.
To make Bliss’ disregard for authority even more interesting, Ferris writes in the head of the local police force as the love interest in Bliss’ life. The reader first learns of this relationship though a word puzzle that Ferris uses with humorous effect.
“BN RBBD. ND BG BLND CP. HRY
What? She swore she used official texting acronyms but he [Redfern] wasn’t’ good with missing vowels. Thea [deputy] came in and saw him frowning over the message. “Problem, Chief?”
“Here, can you make out what Cornwall is saying?”
He should have known better.
Thea squinted at the message. “Been robbed. Need big blind cop. Hurry. Or maybe that’s need big blond cop.” She glanced at his hair. “In which case, that would be you, Chief. Sounds like you should step on it.”
Female characters in literature generally are the champions of tradition and if we can go by the “tall, dark and handsome” (unspoken silent) female interest of the past, we can say most female characters are the superior communicators in literature. In Shroud of Roses, when Bliss texts Chief Redfern on her cell phone, she saves time and effort by using her own form of acronyms that generally go over Redfern’s head. Her disregard for clear communication, and the importance of vowels, shows the reader right up front what Bliss thinks of tradition and convention.
The double role this introduction to the relationship plays is to clarify how things stand between the protagonist and the Chief of police. Redfern doesn’t respond to Cornwall’s text. He is the perfect dichotomous partner for Bliss: moral, calm, and intelligent, which makes it very difficult for Bliss to manipulate him.
After Redfern finishes his tasks for the day, he heads to her apartment. While he hammers on the door, Bliss continues to let a cheese puff melt on her tongue, completely ignoring him until her fingers are licked clean, and she’s good and ready to let him in. Bliss clearly shows she is not eager, nor dependent on this relationship. She can take it or leave it. Another strength not usually shown by females in romantic relationships.
So if Bliss doesn’t communicate properly with Redfern, doesn’t respect his authority, and plays a number of games that keeps him at the end of his rope, why are they even together?
The next scene involves some role-play into the “robbery” miscommunication from the text, a Taser, a white lace thong, and a flash freezing of “ta ta’s”. You’ll have to buy the book to read the scene in all of its detail. Suffice to say, the interplay between Redfern and Cornwall is a clever dance with Bliss attempting to drag information from Redfern, and Redfern keeping his moral code in place, while they fulfill each others’ needs.
He deftly pressed a clasp and sixteen pounds of equipment clattered onto the kitchen table.
“What’s this thing on your belt? Did you get a second gun?”
“It’s a Taser. I’m the only one authorized to carry it.”
I had always wanted to shoot a Taser. “Can I hold it?”
“I just want to see how it works.”
“Just show me…”
“No.” He took off his pants and shirt and covered his belt with them.
I added my robe to the pile. “Wow. You do have a second gun, Officer. I hope you don’t plan to use it on me.” I ran my nails down his chest and watched the muscles contract.
Knowing that’s Bliss’ antics can’t corrupt the strong arm of the law, allows the reader to forgive her, her gender trespasses and enjoy the game. At the end of this scene, Redfern requests a promise of secrecy from Bliss before he reveals a body has been found in the old high school. The fact that Redfern isn’t a total iceberg and occasionally slips Bliss info, keeps the reader engaged in the romance that seems to skirt the edges, but never really dips into “true love”.
The relationship is so strong, it could easily overshadow the mystery, but the characters refer to each other by their last names, which keeps a distance between them. It is these cooling points that serve to keep the mystery the main genre in this plot.
“I’m a friend of Neil’s. He talks about you. I’m the town coroner.”
“Neil who? Oh. You mean Redfern. What’s he been saying about me?”
I’m not qualified to diagnose, but at this point I believe Bliss is a narcissist.
But she’s a narcissist with a past. The fact that Bliss had been at the same prom as the murder victim means Redfern has to question her. A chief questioning a suspect (especially a wanna-be detective) is a power switch that Bliss won’t participate well in. Through the questioning scene we further understand that Bliss is not your typical female swooning over the alpha male.
Redfern in full uniform can be an intimidating sight – for some people. His hard stare made even innocent folk quake in their shoes. “What’s up with you, Redfern? Got a hot tip?”
“Tell me everything you remember about your graduation night. Begin with your arrival at the high school.”
Cornwall relates a vague tale of the drunken haze that was her graduation night. Redfern takes out his notebook and pen and Bliss thinks…
Things were about to get serious. I stifled a snort at his cop face. He was so cute.
With these few short lines, Bliss shows her strength of character in the face of intimidation, and takes away Redfern’s power. How many novels have we read where the female protagonist trembles in the shadow of the alpha male?
Another deviation from the romance genre Ferris makes is the female’s desire to marry. While most female protagonists in a novel with an alpha male like Redfern would be plotting marriage and family, Bliss is obsessed with solving the crime (when she isn’t drinking margaritas and shopping for designer boots).
In a scene most women would wish for with their special someone, Redfern drops the “p” word into their conversation.
Redfern looked up… “You need to get over this phobia about gynecologists. What do you propose to do when you get pregnant?”
“Uh, not get pregnant. Anyway, I’ve nothing against female gynecologists. But a man poking around a woman’s nether parts for money is just wrong. I suspect his motives.”
Instead of being excited that her lover has mentioned children, Bliss barrels right over Redfern’s question and sets a relationship decision, all on her own. It’s a “take-it-or-leave-it” declaration that shows a fearlessness in the character.
One of the dangers of creating a fearless character is alienating the reading audience. Ferris solves this problem a couple of ways, particularly by including a relationship issue that would have many women packing their bags.
Though Redfern loves Bliss, he won’t bend regulations for her, and he won’t be manipulated by her. He puts Bliss up on the suspect list, right along with everyone else who was at prom the night the murder happened. So he’s safe, he can handle himself and we can watch her antics without judgement.
Secondly, Redfern keeps a picture of his dead wife on his night table at his cabin. Because of this, Bliss won’t sleep there. Instead of manipulating to get him to put it away, Bliss has the courage to take this head-on, speaking to him with brutal honesty.
“After, what, almost four years, you keep a picture of your deceased wife beside your bed. You can’t honestly wonder why I don’t want to spend the night there.”
“Debbie will always be apart of my life. That doesn’t reflect on my feelings for you.”
“It would have been better had you said Debbie will always be a part of your past. I’m giving you all the space you need, Redfern, but I can’t be your solace while you continue to mourn indefinitely.”
We learn two things about their relationship from this scene. Bliss loves Redfern, but she doesn’t need him.
From the reader’s perspective, any sympathy they might have for the chief is replaced by empathic alignment with Bliss. Would any of us tolerate a picture of the dead wife beside the bed?
He grabbed his coat from the hook. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
The door closed very quietly, and a minute later I heard his vehicle start up and drive away. It broke my heart, thinking of him heading back to his cold cabin. But it was his choice. I ate my cheesecake. Then I ate his.
These excerpt shows us the main character has a heart, but she doesn’t wallow in sentimental emotions. She takes off on more murder solving adventures, showing female readers everywhere that we don’t have to sit around waiting for that next phone call, or any direction from a man.
During one of these jaunts, Bliss gets lost on a country road during a snow storm. Ferris could have used this event to bring in Redfern as the rescuing hero, but she stays true to her character. Bliss knowingly relates that if she calls Redfern, he’d “have the whole force” out looking for her. Instead of an easy rescue, which will no doubt come with a “lecture” from Redfern, Bliss opts to leave her car and walk through the dark in deep snow to find help.
Scene after scene, in the relationship between Redfern and Bliss, Ferris does what the reader does not expect. With her strong female protagonist out front and centre, this author crashes through the romance conventions, leaving the reader in awe of Miss Moonbeam.
Down to earth, downright rude, oppositional to authority, but forgiven by the reader because her barbs are delivered with a dash of hilarity, Bliss keeps readers laughing out loud, as she attempts to solve the mystery. But more importantly, at least to me, Bliss moves us out of the traditional tropes of the romantically involved female character to give readers a new concept of romance, and an ever-widening interpretation of “female-in-love”.