Clichés are a hazard for any author. They are a particular problem in the BDSM subgenre, partly because a very few influential works have strongly shaped readers' expectations and writers' imaginations. How many dozens of slave-infested mansions have I encountered in my reading? How many S&M clubs where hapless submissives are publicly beaten and abused, where cruel mistresses drag their pets around on leashes and masked Doms glower and posture?
Cristina Crooks' inappropriately titled Sweet and Dirty offers two novellas (Baring It All and Forbidden Heat) that unfold in these prototypical S&M settings. Thankfully, though, she has done an admirable job in avoiding the clichés by focusing on unconventional and at least marginally complex characters as much as on the dirty deeds in which they're involved.
Michelle, the heroine in Baring It All, has been bullied all her life by her family, and then later, by her fiancé, Ted. After an unfortunate episode in which her attempt to be assertive ends badly, she flees her old life in Alabama, taking up residence in big, bad Los Angeles. Despite her desire to free herself from her past existence as a doormat, she finds herself under the thumb of Posh, proprietor of the doggy day care center where Michelle finds work. Meanwhile Ted shows up at her apartment door to drag her back to her “real life” in Alabama.
Then Posh sends Michelle to a fetish emporium to buy studded collars for the kennel's clients (one of the less plausible aspects of this tale) and Michelle encounters dominant Ro Kaliph (interrupting him in his demo of flogging). Michelle manages to stand up to Ro's anger and asks him to teach her how to be more dominant herself. Ro is certain that Michelle is fundamentally submissive, but he's willing to play along. The action unfolds at his newly-opened BDSM club The Dungeon, and provides a number of surprises.
Ro is a great character, an ex-lawyer who has quit his lucrative practice with his father in order to follow his heart and provide a safe, sane and sexy place for people to play. Ms. Crooks emphasizes the fact that he's not classically handsome, a relief in the world of erotica and romance, and he clearly has doubts both about his struggling club and his mixed perceptions of Michelle (or Lizbeth, as she decides to call herself when she steps into Ro's world of pain and passion).
Nora Sabine, the protagonist of Forbidden Heat, is a very different sort of person from little Michelle. A high-powered, hard-working businesswoman, she usually knows what she wants and is unafraid to take it. When she discovers that the Twisted Wood B&B her fiancé Ryan has booked for a long weekend vacation is actually a “Bondage and Breakfast” establishment, she takes it in stride. She has never done anything kinky before and she's hardly a submissive, but she has long-cherished fantasies of being captured and raped. She wonders, especially when she sees Sylvester Vincent, the craggy owner of Twisted Wood, whether her fantasies might not be fulfilled over the fateful weekend.
Sylvester has his own demons to fight, however, stemming from a past incident where he misread the signals from another submissive. Despite his fierce attraction to Nora, he holds back, leaving her to the ministrations of the other guests at the luxurious mansion: refined and sadistic Master Andre, dominatrix Mistress Kiana, the intriguing switches Black and White, and the enigmatic Mage, master of rope bondage and electric torture. Ms. Crooks draws each one of these characters in precise, loving detail, as well as the “service submissives” Little Peter and Kitten. Unlike many tales of Roissy-wannabe S&M hideaways, each dominant and slave is a distinct individual. Being a submissive does not mean having your personality erased. I ended up caring about almost all the characters, even as I waited breathlessly for the heroine and the hero to finally get together.
Ms. Crooks does descend almost to the level of parody in her portrayal of the two boyfriends in these stories. Both are such slimy weasels that you have to wonder how the likeable heroines ever could have gotten involved with them. Ryan is particularly horrible and dishonest, insecure, self-involved, immature, with no sense of responsibility for his supposed lover. The contrast between Ryan's despicable behavior and the sensitive, caring attitude of even the cruelest dominants at Twisted Wood is undoubtedly deliberate.
There's a hint of romance in these tales; both end with the heroine and the hero as a couple--but there's a lot of hot sex with a variety of other people before that point. Both stories fit the classic erotica mold of the sexual quest—characters exploring their own needs, suffering or enjoying a variety of experiences on the way to fulfillment.
The portrayal of BDSM is overwhelmingly positive. Both stories emphasize the need for consent and the responsibility of the dominant for the submissive. That does not prevent Ms. Crooks from presenting some fairly extreme scenes. The interaction between Nora and Mage is particularly intense, and also ends with a great twist.
Occasionally I had the sense that Ms. Crooks lacked knowledge or experience with BDSM. The blocking in some of her scenes felt awkward; I couldn't imagine the positions she was describing. Her description of the fetish store did not match any one that I've ever visited. However, most of the time I was able to forget these quibbles as I was drawn into the action and the characters' actions and reactions.Overall, Sweet and Dirty is entertaining, arousing and will not insult your intelligence. I wouldn't call the book startlingly original, but simply avoiding the traps of S&M stereotypes is a significant accomplishment.