Florence Stonebraker occasionally appears to slip autobiographical references into her novels. In Program for Passion the chief male character is a lawyer who’s abandoned the legal profession for a media career. On his radio show he takes up sexual issues for an audience of women with unsatisfying love lives. He knows he’s wasting his life “handing out sob-sister spiels to morons.” His associates know it too. His secretary routinely denounces his program as “tripe.” His sponsor calls it “revolting hokum.” Even so, he feels compelled to continue. Now Stonebraker herself was a lawyer who gave up the bar for the media. She also dealt with love and sex and also felt compelled to continue. I wonder how she compared her novels to her character’s radio program. Did she believe her work brought enlightenment to the sexually benighted or merely furnished a spicier version of standard romantic pap? Maybe, like me, she just wasn’t sure.
Program for Passion by Florenz Branch. Phoenix Press (1948), 255 pp.
Ted Fagin hosts a radio program in which he gives advice on love to sexually frustrated women. The show, sponsored by San Francisco girdle-maker Pete Rafferty, has become a huge hit. Because some listeners want personal consultations, Ted never lacks for transitory female companionship. His slutty wife, Norma, doesn’t care as long the money keeps coming in. Katy Coleman, however, cares a lot. She’s now Ted’s secretary, but before the war she was briefly his girlfriend. Even though she’s engaged to newspaper columnist Larry Reed, she’s never stopped loving Ted. He may be falling in love with her too. If only Norma were out of the way, the course of true love could run smooth.
This isn’t Double Indemnity, so just bumping off the wife isn’t in the cards. Instead, the author delves into Ted and Norma’s relationship to reveal something that might allow Katy to cause a break-up. Plot twists ensue as the story unfolds. Then toward the end of the book -- consider this a spoiler -- Stonebraker comes up with a shocker. She adds a brutal scene in which Ted beats up his wife in humiliated fury. Norma deserves a comeuppance, of course, but a broken jaw seems a bit much. Readers could easily have wondered whether a guy capable of such a violent outburst might not be risky choice for a permanent relationship. Just a hint that Katy could someday turn into a battered wife challenges the basic premise of all romance fiction. Is Stonebraker is deliberately planting doubt about happy endings? Could be.