What is remarkable about Edie Harris’s The Corrupt Comte is, like early reviews and readers have noted, its complexity and erotic darkness. It is a deeply romantic book as well, and its turning points bend on romantic and erotic gestures both, unapologetically, and without burdening the moment with anything but passionate attention to romance and eroticism.
What is singular about the book, is more difficult to talk about, is voice. From the perspective of a critical discussion, voice often gets broken down into the appeals it creates for the reader. For example, in the opening scene of the book, our spy and Comte Gaspard is, well, he’s spying. He’s actually looking at a woman, but he’s been shackled to his role in espionage since he was young and half-formed, and so multi-valiant assessment from a distance is all that he knows, and when he gets close, it will only be after he can believe the potential threats are minimal or because the threats are so overwhelming there is no choice but inspired bravado.
But, I’m talking about voice, though you can see there, how I almost lost myself talking to you about that opening scene, speculating on what makes Gaspard Gaspard and that is because the appeals the opening voice has—which are appeals of intense and unrelieved sexual tension laced with a wry acknowledgement of secrets and danger.
So you say, yes, yes I want to read this book that begins with unrelieved sexual tension emanating from a French spy who is muscled with secrets and constantly in danger.
And you do. God. You do. I will also tell you that you do because there is a brief slackening of that tension when the scene culminates in a linen closet glowing with lamplight and the unquenched curiosity of the woman Gaspard had been looking at. Just — a slackening. A slip in both of their control that is stolen and starved and so completely desperate that you almost want to go back to the unrelieved sexual tension part just so you don’t break something.
Voice really is what I want to talk about.
It is simple enough, as you can see, to talk about the irresistible appeals of this book. The secrets create tensions, but not barriers, as the barriers are created through extraordinarily paced narrative action and a plot folded as well as a ballroom fan. The secrets are revealed in a series of small decisions that Gaspard makes as a result of his growing attraction to Claudia, a woman imprisoned by her parents’ mercenary guiding principles and their disgust with her speech dysfluency and appearance. His secrets, in fact, can not hold up to Claudia’s easy openness and her vulnerability, the fact that she easily understands that how she speaks isn’t actually her problem, and her parents are self-important fuckheads. His secrets stand no chance in the face of such fierceness, actually, and the more he tells her the more he tells her and the more they realize that honestly, they should just keep their hands all over each other and face the obvious malevolence of the world, together, and in fact, all of their problems and the things they have suffered are a problem of the world but this does not divest them of love or of intense explorations of the other’s body.
These appeals, I’m trying to say, the appeals of tension, and the desperate and gorgeous slackening of it, and secrets and the revelation of them, and vulnerability, and fierceness are achieved in this narrative by how Harris has crafted voice inside the point of view, which, when she is taking us through a plot point, for example, the POV draws back in favor of efficient descriptions of narrative action:
A twist of his wrist, and Gaspard’s blade slid free from the makeshift sheath he’d fashioned to his uninjured forearm, pressing into Evoque’s midsection with deadly intent. Hidden from view between their bodies, Gaspard shifted the knifepoint, digging until the tip found giving flesh through layers of sliced threads.
Compare this to how the POV deepens and the narrative is crafted along more emotional lines, becomes convoluted with how the characters feel in the body and their declarations both, when we are to understand character:
As he shaped the weight of that breast in his palm, marveling at the heavy, round perfection of it, she tugged at his scalp, a burn of sensation ripping down his spine. “I w-would have let you run m-me.” His mind blanked as she forced his head to lift, her direct gaze seeking his. “I would’ve invited s-such ruin.”
Her abrupt honesty startled him, and reflex had him squeezing her tit—painfully, he assumed, hearing he hiss in a breath. He loosened his hold, shifting his fingers up to thrum across her barely covered nipple, gratified by how quickly it hardened beneath his attentions.
He didn’t know how to . . . to be with her when he wasn’t seducing her, or baiting her, or thinking only of his endgame. When she told him her wants, her needs . . .
Gaspard felt a little drunk. Buzzy and dumb and in need of sobering.
“Would you like t-to know what I d-did, m-my lord, after you left m-my too-big b-b-bed?”
He nodded, his head falling helplessly back in her hands as fingers began to pet through the messy strands of his hair. His lashes fluttered down until the world through his slitted lids went hazy.
This is a deeply effective use of voice as it allows us to know where we are in the action and where we are in the emotional development of the character depending on the scene—it is both grounding and deeply engaging and permits the complexity of a plot of espionage and terrible secrets while turning pages. I love this passage as we get such a strong sense of both of their voices though we are in Gaspard’s POV, mainly because we have read other scenes where Gaspard has much more control within the action. Because we know he is falling apart, we look for the reason, in this case Claudia, and so understand her emotional state and how it is guiding their actions.
What’s more, I write about this because it delights me so much, but of course, like most excellent craft, it is largely invisible. Harris means us to enjoy this book, to swoon, and we do. I mean, my god, I w-would have let you ruin m-me/I would have invited s-such ruin—that’s just so. Everything. Sexy and romantic and fierce and hot. I can marvel at what Harris does with voice, of course, but I can also simply hold scenes like this against my chest and be glad I can read them over and over.
There are other appeals, like I said; you will learn from other readers that the world-building is discreet, beautiful, and stays small enough to take in and understand and really see. There is some historical and ethical interests in espionage, how spies are used, how their abuse is exploited by agencies, what the intersections are between governance and aristocracy. There is a deft exploration of the position of women, and how neatly they are trapped by law and society, so neatly, that it is actually devastating for women to love and to live. Again, even for readers who are less interested in these more complex appeals will be seduced by how well Harris makes them a part of story. The book is lean—it wastes little on anything that doesn’t serve the pleasure of the book.
And it is, very much so, a triumph of voice in the best possible way. Rather than a narrative voice to be merely admired or heard, it’s a voice that turns pages and is competent cracking open the spaces between two lovers and narrating a knife fight, both.
Harris sets out to corrupt us with this voice, to make sure we are loath to leave the story she is telling.
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