3 out of 5
While Angel Dare certainly isn’t the first female lead in a pulp novel, author Christa Faust brings a fresh take to the scene – and no, not just because Dare is an ex-porn star turned model manager. Rather, it’s the way Faust finds an appreciably human angle beneath this flashy exterior of her character, and at the intersection of other genre tropes: Money Shot trades in a lot of extremes and touchpoints of revenge stories and ‘corruption of the innocent’-type tales, but it puts you in a place where you can feel connected to all of the major beats. It’s a pretty gripping read as a result.
Angel Dare is content running her own agency in the adult industry, managing her girls as dancers and video stars. Still, a glance in the mirror and observing the changes of age makes a call from an old director friend to star in a flick with an up-and-coming male star an intriguing break from her retirement on that side of the camera. Plus, y’know, a paycheck. But showing up at the shoot leads to her being bound and gagged and asked where some money is – money she has no idea about. And then there’s a trip trussed up in a trunk, and then there was the bullet to the head…
Dare’s survival and team-up with a grizzled ex-cop, Malloy, leads us through recognizable steps from the story types mentioned, as Angel claws her way to retribution, except our lead has a point of view – history with, and surviving in, a difficult and unsavory industry – that sets her slightly outside the context of your “average” narrator who might be drawn in to such events, and she certainly isn’t a hard-boiled P.I. right out of the gates. She deflects with wit but is brought low by trying to figure out what her new place is in the world; she learns some hard life lessons, but continues to pause at mirrors and doubt those lessons along the way. Meanwhile, this ain’t no psychological study – there’s a constant barrage of shootouts and chases and intense scuffles to keep things moving.
That said, while Angel’s profession adds flavor to her point of view, it also requires putting some unanswerable questions on the table – where the line is drawn between what’s “acceptable” and what’s vile; being sex-positive one moment and then shaming the next – that can’t really be done justice in this type of text, and it’s a bit of a distraction. Faust does her best to juggle it, recognizing that a deep-dive conversation on sexuality and gender roles and where porn falls on some grander morality scale definitely isn’t the focus of the book, and so tries to work it in open-endedly into Angel’s and Malloy’s interactions, but it’s an unavoidable problem: you can’t not bring it up, given the porn angle of the book, but you also can’t go all preachy, else it won’t sit right with the characters and tone, and so… thoughts are dangled, and abandoned. I have no solution for this, but neither did Faust. Muddying the problem further is when some bias does sneak into the subtext of things, and while I’m far from the type who feels like every kink in the world is owed a fair shake – I want to be fair, but I know I have my judgements – I do get a bit flustered when authors play things both ways on such subject matter, wanting to dance around and be all chillax and cool on one page, and then tight-lipped on another. It can be really hard to iron this out, and perhaps I’m just more sensitive to it than others, but again: it’s present, and it can be distracting.
More structurally speaking, some of the stitching holding the book together is a bit janky as well. Faust employs a flash-forward / flash-back opening that feels unnecessary – her writing is snappy as-is, and so the grabber wasn’t really needed – and there are too many convenient “I’m just remembering this important detail now” moments. Some scenes don’t clearly transition from one to another, and there’s some late in the game comic relief that feels somewhat out of place. But I refer to it as stitching because these are mostly lines inbetween larger, more involving, supremely exciting sections of the book, and so keeping with the patchwork symbolism, it’s really liking a piece of clothing, and seeing some off seams when you get up close… but still digging the item anyway, and looking good wearing it. Or something.
Extrapolate as you will, as long as your extrapolation is that Money Shot is another great addition to Hard Case’s modern offerings, and goes far beyond its porn star-starring quirk to establish some memorable characters, and page-turning scenes.