CW/TW: Sexual assault
I’ve been a romantic suspense/mystery/thriller mood lately (Ed. note: “always”) so I was excited to read Kat Martin’s latest rom sus about a woman searching for her missing brother. At first, The Conspiracy worked okay for me; the hero was a little bit boner-led, but the action and the plot made up for that flaw.
Then I got a graphic sexual assault scene that was totally unnecessary and I just noped on out.
The book opens with Harper Winston approaching Chase Garrett, the owner of Maximum Security, about helping her find her missing brother. Michael Winston went sailing in the Caribbean on vacation, but made sure to contact his sister every few days to let her know he was okay. Then his communications stopped, and Harper can’t reach him at all.
Chase and Michael have a past. They were once good friends until Michael developed a substance abuse problem, in part due to his father’s constant verbal abuse. Chase tried to get Michael help, Michael refused, and Chase cut ties. Chase also hates Harper and Michael’s wealthy, powerful father. He knows how he abused Michael, and he also knows that not all of Knox Winston’s money was earned legally.
Chase agrees to help Harper, and their search for Michael leads them from the Caribbean to Venezuela to Colombia. It turns out that Michael and the woman he was with at the time, Pia, were kidnapped by “rebels.” All of this was staged, though. Michael is really being held at the behest of a former business partner of Knox’s, someone he screwed over.
So we get some action adventure time where Harper and Chase trek through the jungle and search for the remote location where Michael and Pia are being held. They have some serious pants feelings for each other despite being
- in the jungle, sweaty and bug bitten and exhausted
- in near constant danger
- surrounded by other tough dudes who probably smell bad.
Danger boners. Gotta love them.
I wasn’t crazy about Chase from the get-go. His action guy persona exhibits a lot of toxic masculinity that reminded me of Old Skool heroes. He’s a love-em and leave-em tough guy, and I like my heroes with more emotionally fluency than that.
Here’s an example of him being gross. He introduces Harper to a man he’s hired to help them:
Dawson’s gaze swung to Harper, slid over her body, taking in her taller than average height and slender build, the blonde hair she’d pulled into a ponytail. Since Harper was a beautiful woman any man with a dick would notice, Chase didn’t take offense–as long as Dawson kept his distance.
Cool. So rather than, say, calling Dawson out on ogling his client, Chase isn’t “offended” and thinks, “Well, she’s pretty and he’s got a penis so of course he’s gonna ogle.”
So I’m already doing a lot of lip-curling where Chase is involved. Then we get the sexual assault scene.
Michael and Pia are being held prisoner, when one of their captors orders them to have sex in front of him while he masturbates. He’s armed and they aren’t, and he makes it clear that if they don’t comply he’ll kill them.
We get the entire scene from Michael’s point of view, not Pia’s. She’s clearly horrified and she’s crying, and they do have sex in front of this guy. The whole thing is awful, and it didn’t need to be there. The only purpose to this scene was the make the bad guy more bad, and we didn’t need that.
Sarah and I were discussing rape in books and specifically why I wasn’t upset about the rape scene in another book I read and reviewed recently. In that case the plot hinged on the rape occurring. If it had been removed from the book, there would be no book. It served a purpose essential to that plot. It wasn’t intended to make a villain more villainous, or provide angst for the heroine, or to titillate.
If you removed this scene from The Conspiracy, nothing changes. The villain is still bad because he kidnapped people. He’s willing to kill them. There’s still plenty of conflict and angst. Nothing would be affected.
I also thought it was odd that the scene was given to me from Michael’s point of view and not Pia’s. I agree that Michael is as much a victim in this as Pia is, but removing her voice felt like I was being distanced from her.
Despite all of this, I forged on a little longer. Then I got to the scene that really, really, REALLY made me mad.
Pia and Michael have been rescued and are recovering.
Michael calls Pia:
“I just…I called to see how you’re doing. I’ve missed you.”
A pause. “I’ve missed you too, Michael.”
Hope swelled. “I’ve thought of you every day. Dreamed of you at night. I want to see you, honey. I’ll come to Miami. Just tell me it’s okay.”
“I’m sorry Michael. I’m just not ready. I keep having flashbacks. What happened…I can’t seem to get past it. All the fighting, the men dying…other things. I’m seeing someone.”
His chest clamped down. “A man?”
He finally heard a smile in her voice. “No, silly. A psychologist. She’s helping me. She says I’ll be fine. I just need some time to work things out.”
Are you fucking kidding me right now? Pia was kidnapped because of him, sexually assaulted, and is telling him she has PTSD and his response is, “you’re seeing another dude?” [sad boner wilt]. His feelings are the focus, and not hers.
I threw the book on floor, walked away from it, and raged a little bit. DNF time for me.
So to summarize: The Conspiracy has a gross sexist hero, an unnecessary sexual assault, and then treats that assault with pretty much no sensitivity. The impact on Michael is prioritized over the impact on Pia.
Fuck all of that.