Dirty Tactics - Emma Salah review

by Kim Bansi

There seems to be a stereotype when it comes to Black and brown readers; that we exclusively want to read hard-hitting books about the politics of race and identity. While of course we love to see our complex experiences represented in book form, believe it or not, we also enjoy the flights of fancy offered by genres like fantasy, mystery and, of course, romance.

I have been a fan of romance books for as long as I can remember; there’s always something so gripping about the twists and turns of love that made these books un-put-downable. However, up until a week ago I had never read a story in this genre by a Black woman, or any woman of colour for that matter, which is why I was excited to discover Emma Salah’s debut steamy romance, Dirty Tactics.

The book starts with the promise of forbidden romance. Reagan Thomas and Zac Quinn have never been able keep their hands off each other, but Zac is adamant they cannot be together because Reagan’s family, her four brothers and father, are the only real family Zac has ever known. For Zac, there is too much at risk, even though there has always been a deep connection between the two. After years of dancing around the subject, Reagan takes matters into her own hands to prove they’re good together.

Straightaway, Salah speaks directly to the romance genre’s historically dubious depiction of Black people. In the first chapter, she writes ‘Her black skin was the colour of Ethopian coffee beans - or was it cacao? She never could remember what food people described her skin as.’ With this one line Salah winks at how Black skin has been fetishised by the genre, however, the character’s self-awareness immediately signals to the reader that we are in safe hands. Reagan’s blackness is woven in through moments that ground the story in reality, like being acutely aware of being the only Black woman at her work, rather than it being used as a driving plot point. It would have been easy to centre this book on the forbidden love between a white man and a Black female, like so many books that have come before it, but the steer away from this is more than welcome.

As the main character, Reagan feels modern and doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming a romantic protagonist cliche. She cares about her career, is good at her job, and she isn’t just a shy, retiring, virginal girl waiting for love to come and land on her lap. Dirty Tactics does not disappoint on other steamy romance essentials either. The chemistry between the two main characters is full-on, and there’s plenty of excellent sex scenes. To say the sex between Reagan and Zac is passionate would be an understatement. These scenes, which are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, really convey Zac and Reagan’s lust for each other and depicts a version of sex that plays into a lot of fantasies, like sex in closets of parties and in Reagan’s office. While the sex feels fantastical, there’s always moments that ground it in reality, like after a particularly raunchy scene you can count on Reagan to break the tension with a goofy line and there’s nothing sexier in erotica than a relatable protagonist.

It’s also funny in parts, and the relationships outside of the romantic one, like the one between Reagan and her best friend and between Reagan and her brothers, are endearing. So much so, I powered through this book in a matter of hours one particularly rainy evening during lockdown. It was the perfect antidote to a lot of the heavy stuff I have been consuming over the past few weeks.

All in all, Emma Salah’s debut novel very much ticks the boxes we’ve come to expect of books in this genre and it was great to see a Black woman as the romantic lead in a really natural way. It’s a really fun book and as Black, brown and other minority readers we should know that it’s ok to let ourselves read something lighthearted and indulgent! It might not change your life, but that’s okay because it sure as hell will immerse you in the playful world of Reagan Thomas.

Oh, and by the end of it, you’ll probably be gagging for the next installment.

Dirty Tactics will be available tomorrow, 20 July, published by Carina Press (Harlequin).

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.