Review & Author Interview – The Double Cross by Carla Kelly

Joining me on the blog today is seasoned romance author Carla Kelly promoting the first book in her new series, The Double Cross.  Y’all should know by now how I feel about historical romance — how I’ve read and enjoyed hundreds of books set in Regency England, even when I knew, cognitively, that I should not be enjoying them —  but I get extra excited about books set in atypical regions, time periods, classes, etc.  I was thrilled to discover this book, set in 1780s Spanish-controlled New Mexico.

Cover image, The Double Cross by Carla Kelly

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragón is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comanchería, the domain of the fierce Comanche. Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district’s records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe.  He is dedicated, conscientious and lonely. This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights. He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega.

Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma’s parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma’s fortunes are about to change. Meanwhile, Marco has other challenges to contend with. An elderly ranchero named Joaquin Muñoz has set in motion events that involve the ever-dangerous Comanches and threaten the uneasy peace of Marco’s jurisdiction. Set against the mountains and high plains of northeastern New Mexico during the decline of Spanish power in the New World, The Double Cross is a story of loss and love regained, at a time when honor went hand in glove with bravery, and danger was never far away.

My Review

This is the first Carla Kelly book I’ve ever read, and it definitely makes me want to read more. It’s so darn charming. In list form, here’s what I loved about the book:

  1. The chapter subtitles: Hilarious. Here are some examples: “Chapter Five, In Which Marco Mondragón Confesses, Argues about Penance and Takes an Unwilling Dog”; and “Chapter Eleven, In which Paloma Hears Father Damiano’s Confession and Suffers Delusions from Cabbage.”
  2. The writing style: The humorous chapter subtitles cue readers in to the sly humor that pervades this book. While the subject matter is often dark, the writing is just light enough to ensure a pleasant read and to highlight, by contrast, the darker themes discussed. The book reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide, in reverse. (Don Marco discovers his optimism, rather than losing it to disillusionment, throughout the course of the novel.) The book is funny, smart, and sharp.
  3. The setting: This story takes place in 1780s New Mexico. The historical details of the setting are beautifully incorporated into the story. I never felt like I was reading Kelly’s research notes.
  4. Adorable animal antics: I’m a sucker for animal cuteness in books, and Trece, the yellow dog, filled my heart with happy.

I had an absolute blast reading the book, but there were a few things that stuck out to me.  The language is occasionally jarringly modern, but though it sometimes doesn’t fit with the setting, the language fits the style of the book. (Also, anachronisms don’t bother me much.) Finally, this book seemed (to me) to be historical fiction rather than romance. The story is focused on Don Marco and his adventures, one of which is falling in love with and marrying Paloma Vega, but the story arc is not about the romance. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed The Double Cross, even though it’s not (to me) precisely a romance.

The bottom line, though, is that this book is a delightful read. Lovers of historical romance who are jonesing for interesting new settings should be all over The Double Cross. Lovers of historical fiction or any folk who read and liked Candide should pick it up, too.

Interview with Carla Kelly

1.  RwA: Over the past few months, I’ve been seeing more and more readers of historical fiction and historical romance clamoring for new and different settings (perhaps there has been an over-saturation of regency romances…), and this book definitely qualifies.  What drew you to write a novel set in New Mexico in the 1780s?

Carla Kelly: I totally agree with your comment about over-saturation of regency romances. Ho ho, maybe I’m part of the problem (Of course, I am part of the earlier bunch of Regency writers). Years ago, I was reading a Spanish borderlands history, and came across juez de campo in a mere footnote. It translates literally as “field judge,” but we would call him a brand inspector today. I teased out tiny bits of information here and there, including the statement that jueces de campo also solved petty crimes, in the absence of other forms of law enforcement. I thought first about setting the story in the early 1800s in south Texas, where I used to live, but I really wanted an earlier era. My undergrad degree in history is Latin American History. My grad degree is Indian Wars history. I wanted to combine the two. I shelved the idea until my son moved to northeastern New Mexico around Taos. On a visit two years ago, the whole thing coalesced. My brand inspector would be a New Mexican land grant owner in the 1780s, living on the edge of the most dangerous area in the Southwest, Comancheria. I wanted a time when Spain was growing weak and pulling back its puny protection from the frontier, leaving those self-reliant types to work out their own destinies. And so The Double Cross came about.

2.  RwA: There is so much playful humor in this book.  Do you tend to write with humor, or is the humor a product of these characters or this setting?

Carla Kelly: You’ll note, also, that there is a lot of deadly serious stuff in the novel. I tend to do that – humor and tragedy – because life is like that. We laugh a lot, but we also have cause to cry or mourn. These two characters just lent themselves to that kind of joshing good humor that two lovers in tune with each other have. That’s the way they are. So I suppose the humor is a product of the characters.

3.  RwA: What was the average life expectancy in New Mexico at that time?

Carla Kelly: Most young women married at puberty, around 14. By 18 or so, a young man was either well-seasoned or dead. The fact that Marco is all of 31 testifies to good genes, and the deliberate way he goes about keeping safe, as he explains in the story. The threat of Indians was constant, and disease took a toll. I suppose a woman of 35 and a man of 40 would be considered well into middle age. Life was often short, harsh and brutal.  On the other hand, a healthy person could probably live into the 60s.

4.  RwA: What happens, politically, after the story ends (between, say, 1780 and 1820)?

Carla Kelly:I picked 1780 deliberately because the series begins just after Gov. Juan de Anza has defeated the Kwahadi Comanche, which happened to be the tribe closest to his royal territory. By 1786, de Anza forged a remarkable peace with the Comanche, first white leader to do this successfully. He promised trading rights at the great Taos fair (the Comanche were great traders), in exchange for a cessation of raiding the colony. Both sides actually kept their promises, which meant that the Comanche turned their horrific raids east to Texas. Between 1780-1786 is a time of some peace, some suspicion, some wariness: a great time to write about. There was also a major smallpox epidemic during this time, subject of book 2. By 1810, Mexico had revolted from Spain. New Mexico followed suit later on, mainly because the colony had no huge gripe with Spain and was so remote. By 1820, trade with Americans and fur trappers was well underway, but that’s beyond the scope of my series.

 5.  RwA: How typical was it to have separate churches for the rich and the poor?  Is it fair to assume that in general the breakdown between rich and poor is similar to the breakdown between Spaniards and mestizo/natives?  What kind of impact did that breakdown have on the society?

Carla Kelly: The Indians tended to go to San Miguel in Santa Fe, because it was their mission church. The Spaniards went to San Fernando. You have to understand that by 1780, most so-called Spaniards had mingled with the Indians, creating mestizos. Marco himself is one of these, while Paloma is mostly Spanish, if not all. So the breakdown is actually Spanish/mestizo (rich) and Indian (poor or maybe just Indian). There really weren’t as many class distinctions as one might find in Mexico City. The races mingled far more successfully than they ever did in the English colonies.

RwA: Regarding that last sentence, “The races mingled far more successfully than they ever did in the English colonies,” do you suppose geography and/or a lower population density had anything to do with it?  In a less rugged geography with more people, one can choose one’s neighbors and friends, right?

Carla Kelly: My own studies in Colonial Latin American history assure me that the races mingled successfully because Spaniards were less bigoted than English colonists. They had a two-fold purpose in exploration: wealth, and to spread Catholicism. When natives converted, they were welcomed into the fold. (And true, many were forced into conversion. The priests were often careful to incorporate native beliefs into Catholic New World ritual.) From 711 to 1492, Moors and Spaniards existed together, more or less, in Spain. At least partly because of this, I don’t think the New World conquerors saw Indian contact as a great gulf to overcome. Also, Spaniards didn’t bring along women in their conquests, i.e., they didn’t come as family units, the way many of the English did. The available women were Indian, and Spanish have always been pretty matter-of-fact people.

 6.  RwA: Here’s a trivial question: what kind of dog is Trece?

Carla Kelly: The Trece in my writer’s eye is a sort of Pomeranian, that useless kind of dog good to warm feet.

 7.  RwA: What’s the USD equivalent of 1 peso?  I’m curious to know just how much Marco paid for that dog. 🙂

Carla Kelly: The peso to dollar ratio was about even in 1780: 1 1780 peso = 1 1780 dollar.  The value of such a dollar today would be between $50-$100, probably closer to $100. Marco was completely fleeced, but he knew it. That peso would have bought several very fine cows.

18th century:
1 peso= 8 reales
medio peso= 4 reales
peseta= 2 reales
medio peseta= 1/2 real
cuartillo= 1/4 real  (This probably would have been a logical price for a runt)

8.  RwA: I understand The Double Cross is the first book in a new series; what more do you have planned?

Carla Kelly: Well, we’re headed to an encounter with a disgraced doctor fleeing across east Texas from the American colonies now at war in the distant east. Smallpox is all around (as it was in the early 1780s out West), and Marco had already told Paloma he can protect her from everything except disease. But never fear.  Also, there is the matter of Paloma’s land in Texas. Another book, probably number 3, will involve the Great Taos Trading Fair. And then we’ll see. I intend to write The Spanish Brand series until readers get tired of my charming couple and their enigmatic Comanche.
I know this dates me, but in my mind I see Marco Mondragon and Paloma Vega as the Nick and Nora Charles of the 18th century Spanish borderlands: a little sexy, a little sassy, a little mysterious. I’ve also written it in the style of an 18th century picaresque novel. It’s quite straightforward, as 18th century Spanish writings tends to be.
Also, Marco and Paloma are obviously religious. They lived in a religious society that relied upon the rituals of Holy Church. It governs what they do and how they feel. Paloma is so eager to have children, because they need children. But will it happen? Marco tells her to be patient, and she prays. And so does he. And as Father Damiano says, God does things in His time, not ours. Maybe there is a message here for us about contentment and patience.

Thank you, Carla, for coming on the blog today to answer all my random questions!  I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.  (And I need to check out some of your regency romances!)

The Double Cross was released on August 1, 2013 as a paperback by Camel Press.  To learn more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Carla Kelly, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*