Million Dollar Marriage

Blissful by Rita Clay Estrada
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-821-76570-1
It’s 1889 and Charlie Macon’s search for the outlaw Vic Masters has led him to the home of Kathleen O’Day in Blissful “Helltown” Texas. Blissful’s reputation as the most wicked town west of the Mississippi leads Charlie to believe that the spitfire single woman is not only Vic’s lover but a prostitute! Determined to capture the man that killed his partner, he moves into Kathleen’s house thinking that Vic will certainly come back for his lady of the night.

Kathleen is less than enthusiastic to have Charlie around. For one thing, Blissful has a secret to keep, and an outsider’s presence could blow the whole charade. When Kathleen came to Texas, the town was starting to die. The railroad came through on rare occasions, and never with produce and cattle cars. Residents had to take their merchandise 20 miles to a neighboring town, which was not only costly, but the produce tended to rot before the train even got there. Kathleen comes up with a plan for the railroad to not only come through more often, but to actually stop in tiny Blissful.

She concocts a plan to make Blissful the most wicked town in the west. The staged bank robberies, gunfights, and tall tales soon work and Blissful is on the map. Curiosity seekers take the train in to catch a glimpse of the sin, and even buy souvenirs from grisly crimes. The railroad commission is willing to talk about more frequent stops now, and produce and cattle cars. But now Charlie’s in town, and if he’s right and a real outlaw is on the loose, Blissful’s survival is hanging in the balance.

The main characters’ actions in Blissful are often unbelievable. After Charlie breaks into Kathleen’s bedroom, points a gun at her, and says he’s not leaving, she sleeps through the night! A strange man breaks into her bedroom and she can sleep? Then Kathleen does nothing to get him out of her house. The very least she could do would be to round up a town posse, but she doesn’t even do that! She just goes about her business, and lets the man stay. Charlie has free run of the house, and makes himself right at home.

Charlie’s notion that Kathleen is a prostitute is at first amusing, then gets annoying. He watches her not only milk the cow, but bake carrot cake, which she tells him she sells to support herself. Even after this, he still thinks she’s Vic’s lady of the night. How many old west prostitutes milk cows and bake carrot cake? He eventually gives up that notion, but his powers of deductive reasoning never do improve.

If I were a criminal, I would have no fear about Charlie Macon catching up to me. Once he’s living in Kathleen’s house, he basically helps with chores and fantasizes about her. How about snooping around to see if Vic is actually in town after all? Or investigate why a “lawless” town like Blissful has been down right peaceful? Kathleen frequently travels alone for goodness sakes! That right there should have given the guy a clue. Not Charlie, he’s too busy staring at Kathleen in the bathtub, or going skinny dipping in the creek behind the barn.

Several events in the characters’ pasts are briefly explored and then abandoned. Kathleen moved to Texas to get away from a domineering brother. While the issue is explored, it’s hardly in depth, and she barely mentions it to Charlie. Charlie’s a widower, and a father of a teenage girl who lives with her grandparents. He tells Kathleen about their existence, but the topic is never discussed after that. And as for Charlie’s dead partner? His name is never even mentioned. Other than the fact that Vic Masters killed him, the reader is given no details about what led up to his death. It’s hard to be sympathetic about Charlie’s manhunt when we don’t even know the details of what he’s avenging.

The secondary characters are not much better. They all walk around like faceless creations that offer no depth to the story. In fact, I was introduced to so many of them, and given so little detail that I quickly was forgetting who was who. I kept getting the feeling that the characters were put in just so Kathleen would have someone to talk to. Case in point, there’s an elderly woman living next door that isn’t mentioned until Kathleen needs to explore her true feelings for Charlie.

By the time Charlie and Kathleen realize they can’t live without each other, I was no longer interested. What could have been a fun western romp that poked fun at the gunslinging Wild West stereotypes instead become a nice idea populated by unbelievable characters.

--Wendy Crutcher

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