I was a late convert to Patricia Gaffney’s novels. I’m not sure how that happened; back when I first became interested in romance novels, in the mid-1990s, I deliberately sought out classic novels in the genre. Perhaps in my catching up on older novels, I missed what was then current.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that I finally read To Have and To Hold (1995), one of the most-discussed romance novels ever, and was astonished by its complexity [link leads to my blog post about it]. Next, I read Wild at Heart (1997), set in Gilded Age Chicago, which entered my Keeper collection.

Crooked Hearts (originally released 1994) is one of the best romance novels whose protagonists are on the wrong side of the law. For me, criminal heroes are a hard sell. I began to wonder about how Gaffney had done it, how she had made me not only like but love two confidence tricksters, Grace and Reuben. I realized, once I started collecting and reflecting on quotes, the brilliance of her characterization.

Gaffney is specific when she tells us what the characters love about each other. Saying, for instance, “he was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen” is bland. Gaffney does this instead to show what Grace likes about Reuben:

His voice was low-pitched and intimate, like a cello playing a slow waltz… She liked his scholar’s forehead and his long beak of a nose, his romantic mouth…

It wasn’t even his good looks that caused the devastation; if anything he was too handsome, a man not to be trusted on that score alone. No, what really made him dangerous was the fatal thread of sincerity that wove through his effortless charm, smooth as snake oil.

Reuben’s thoughts about Grace are equally appealing. I particularly love how he mingles thoughts of “traditional” attraction to her waist, hips, and breasts with attraction to her unique characteristics.

…slim, womanly hips, a minute waist he could probably get his hands around, and breasts—big palmfuls at odds with the smallness of the rest of her, proud and perky as a couple of high-nosed thoroughbreds in the winner’s circle. He even knew what beat behind the luscious breasts: a larcenous heart…That’s what he liked about her: the combination of bunco artist and bleeding heart. You didn’t find that very often, especially in a woman.

Reuben notes even the tiniest details of her physicality, which makes clear how closely he’s been paying attention to her throughout the narrative.

…Her left eyetooth was slightly crooked and overlapped the neighboring incisor, a defect that gave a rakish twist to her sly smiles…In fact, he couldn’t say which of her so-called imperfections he liked better, the bumpy nose, the crooked eyetooth, or the little mole under her left ear.

Finally, I adored the way Gaffney shows Reuben falling into love with Grace. It’s not stated directly, but shown to the reader, so we can realize along with Reuben what’s wonderful about this woman, not in general, but specifically wonderful when these two people interact; and best of all, what he loves about her is integral to her character.

She wasn’t really beautiful. That too came to Reuben with a jolt, for up to now he’d believed completely in the illusion of beauty she deliberately fostered. But it was a trick. She tossed her hair, looked deeply into your eyes, smiled her suicide smile–she acted beautiful, and by sheer nerve and sleight of hand she made you believe she was. You never saw the flaws because you were too caught up in the trick, the mystique; seduced by the patter, you were watching the wrong hand. The degree of courage an act like that must require took his breath away.

If this novel isn’t art, I don’t know what is.

[This post was originally written for the Heroes and Heartbreakers blog but, in its original version, is no longer online. I make it available here, updated and edited, for posterity.]