Dangerous Days

September 1, 2008

I first started reading Dangerous Days several weeks ago, and, because it was by Mary Roberts Rinehart, I assumed that it would be a murder mystery. And if it was, it was clear that the murder victim would be Clayton Spencer, and I didn’t like the other characters enough to get through more than three hundred pages worth of them if he wasn’t there too. So I put the book aside.

I picked it up again this weekend, because, after all, I wasn’t positive that there was going to be a murder, and I was in the middle of too many things and wanted to finish one. And I really did like Clayton Spencer, and I wanted to find out what happened to him.

I finished Dangerous Days this morning, and I’m not really sure what to say about it. I liked it, definitely. And I was absorbed almost from the moment I picked it up again, although there were times when I had to put it down, like when Graham Spencer hit Clay’s caddie in the head with a golf ball, or when Audrey Valentine’s husband died, or when Herman Klein beat up his daughter.

Bad things happen to the people in this book. And the characters are somewhat clichéd, and so is pretty much everything else, and the logic of the book backs a lot of opinions I disagree with, but I was completely hooked, and, as Rinehart’s philosophy was internally consistent, I just went with it. Because no matter how clichéd and/or silly some part of Dangerous Days are, taken out of context, it’s honest about where it stands, and it means everything it says.

That’s why I love this kind of book, and why I write this blog. Real life isn’t internally consistent, and there’s no right or clear path to take, and the cynical view is often the right one. Bad books aren’t internally consistent either, and there is never a doubt that there’s a right path and a wrong one, and the cynical view is almost always wrong. There are no rules like that about good books.

And then there are books like Dangerous Days, books with a good deal of right in them, but often just as much that’s wrong. And there is a right path to take, but it’s not always clear, and you get the sense that the author is struggling to figure out what it is almost as hard as her characters. But no matter how muddled the characters get, the author’s conviction that the world does somehow make sense, and have a consistent internal logic, comes through. Books like these are safe, but not too safe. You can get upset while reading them — and I certainly did with this one — but you know that there will always be some good to balance the bad.

Plotwise, Dangerous Days is the kind of book I tend not  to like. Clayton Spencer is a rich businessman, the tallest and strongest and handsomest and cleverest among his friends. His wife Natalie is beautiful and shallow, and doesn’t love him, and cares only about her own comfort. Their son Graham, just back from college, is callow and too much under the influence of Natalie, who does her best to turn him away from Clayton.

Audrey Valentine is the most popular woman in the Spencers’ set, because she’s energetic and original. Her husband Chris is weak and lazy. Doctor Haverford is the local clergyman, a little too worldly, but with a good heart. His wife seems brighter than most of the other women we meet, but we don’t get to see much of her. Their daughter goes by the somewhat improbable name of Delight, and is kind and funny and straightforward. Marion Hayden is aging out of the debutante group, but still popular. Rodney Page is an architect and designer, and is currently building the Spencers an extravagant country house. Natalie is completely absorbed in the work, but Clay isn’t — his tastes run more towards a quiet cottage in the woods.

The book opens in the Fall or Winter of 1916, and everyone is defined by their attitude to the war currently taking place in Europe. If they’re against the US becoming involved, they’re bad people. Natalie is the worst of these. Her only interest in the war is fear that Graham will go and fight. Clayton owns a steel mill and is building a munitions plant. He want to do everything he can to help the Allies, and he’s so principled that he tries not to make too much of a profit off the war. Graham wants to join an army — that’s how we know he’s a pretty good guy underneath — but Natalie won’t let him.

Graham has woman troubles. Aside from his overprotective mother, there’s Marion Hayden, who wants to marry him for his money and succeeds in becoming engaged to him, and Anna Klein, his secretary, who is in love with him, and with whom he has a fairly innocent little affair, mostly because she looks up to him where Marion looks down on him. There’s also Delight Haverford, who has been in love with him for years, but she avoids him most of the time, partially because she sees how the other women in his life treat him, and partially because she wants him to make his own decisions.

Anna Klein’s father, Herman, works for Clayton Spencer, but quit when Clayton starts manufacturing ammunition. He is originally from Germany, and he still feels some loyalty to it. His nephew Rudolph is actively engaged in trying to sabotage Clayton’s factory, and eventually succeeds.

The real story of the book is about Clayton and Audrey. After Audrey discovers that Chris is having an affair, something she says goads him into going off to France to drive an ambulance. After he’s gone, she comes to depend on Clay a lot, and eventually hey fall in love with each other, but because they’re Clayton Spencer and Audrey Valentine, and not, say, Rodney Page and Natalie Spencer, there’s nothing dramatic about them being in love. Chris dies, and the United States enters the war, and Natalie and Rodney do have a sort of affair, and the munitions factory is blown up, and Audrey gives speeches at recruiting stations, and both of them are able to get through it more easily because they talk to each other sometimes. Once in a long while, they hold hands. It’s all very virtuous. Audrey is nothing like Natalie, and Clay — as Audrey tells him once, early on — is big and solid and dependable, and if I hadn’t already been pretty much sold on Clayton Spencer, that would have done it.

And eventually things get a bit better. Graham joins the army after the factory gets blown up, and just before he’s sent overseas he marries Delight. Natalie leaves Clayton, which, considering all she’s put him through, should definitely be counted as a good thing. And on Armistice Day, in Paris, Audrey and Clay decide that they can finally be together. It’s not a really happy ending, but you get a sense that they can both stop working so hard now, and get some rest, which is sort of what they represent to each other.

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