Signs of a Dangerous Past is the first fiction novel published by Tamsin Coates, author of non-fiction books Meanwhile I Keep Dancing and A Changing Skyline. Her book Meanwhile I Keep Dancing is about her journey as a mother of two deaf children, whilst A Changing Skyline chronicles their experiences further.
Signs of a Dangerous Past is described as a ‘romantic suspense novel which tells the fast paced story of love, murder and art fraud in modern day Savannah.’ This is a suspense novel with a difference though – Jenna, one of the main characters, is deaf and uses ASL (American Sign Language). Although the novel goes back and forth between different characters’ perspectives, the most used perspective is Detective Ryan Morgan, the man who discovers Jenna and her son being held hostage whilst he visits them on a routine enquiry related to her brother’s murder.
What follows is true to the tagline – the Detective eventually falls in love with Jenna, gets deeper into an investigation involving art fraud and murder, and discovers that all may not be as it seems in Jenna’s mysterious past. If you’re a reader of romantic suspense, this is an interesting and readable addition to the genre. I enjoyed reading it, even though I don’t usually read romantic suspense – my forays into suspense and romance tend to be within the supernatural genre, horror or literary fiction (apart from reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series). I found the detail of the investigation fascinating: the different strands of evidence coming together and the clues adding up. One niggling thing that I found was that the novel could have benefited from some extra editing with layout, grammar and spelling, but for the most part this didn’t detract from the story.
The characters were well portrayed: although there was more from the viewpoint of the Detective, since most of the action was focused on the unravelling of the investigation, Jenna was portrayed as capable and strong. A few books I’ve read with a deaf character tend to use deafness as a central plot device, whilst I found it refreshing that this novel was not centred upon Jenna’s deafness. Although I have read books that are focused on deafness (such as Nick Sturley’s excellent Innocents of Oppression), it is often a joy to read the stories of characters that are deaf written by people who understand the ins and outs of deaf culture and deafhood, without making this the subject.
One thing I find interesting is the portrayal of sign language in novels: here, there is less of a focus on representing the sign by sign conversation, and more on an overall understanding of what is being said in a conversation. Jenna is often interpreted for by her friend or occasionally her son, and therefore since the Detective doesn’t understand ASL for most of the book, he communicates with Jenna via lipreading and writing things down. He makes an effort to learn the basics of ASL quite early on, and there is a moment when the author describes the sign for ‘thank you’: ‘Morgan nodded and then using a jerky movement he moved his right palm up to just below his lips and then moved it forward and down in Jenna’s direction to add the sign ‘thank you’ to his answer.’
Since ASL and BSL (and any other sign language) have their own grammar and syntax, it would be awkward to translate to English (or any other language), unless you employed an approach like the one above. I’ve attempted to do this in my own fiction and find that I simply can’t find a less awkward way to do it. Far easier is watching/creating a script/film that is sign-language centred or visual, or writing a book that is more visually centred. The author has struck the right balance between communicating meaning and occasionally describing what ASL looks like to a hearing observer.
I enjoyed reading Signs of a Dangerous Past and look forward to future novels from Tamsin Coates. You can buy her novel on Amazon.