Anne Stuart (not, prothesis coincidentally, approved the deceased member of the English royalty) is apparently one of the grand masters of romance, having won the lifetime achievement award from RWA. She’s been publishing novels since 1974 (when she was twenty-five) and has worked with every publisher I can think of, and in every subcategory except (as far as I can tell) paranormals. I’m sort of confused as to how this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read, what with her prolific output. Currently she is concentrating on romantic suspense/thrillers and historical romance, published by MIRA. She lives in Vermont and is inordinately fond of Japanese rock music. She also appears to have bellydanced at one point in her life, but then again, so did my grandmother. (No joke!)
Rachel Chapman is a photographer; as a single mom, she traveled around the world with her daughter Sophie for thirteen years, until, during a brief time settled in San Francisco, Sophie’s best friend Tessa was murdered. That event spooked Rachel so much that she decided to get married and settle down so that Sophie would have a safe rest of her childhood. Enter David Middleton, an English professor on sabbatical — charming, mild-mannered, smart, and a little bland, but attentive and, above all, safe — or so Rachel thinks. Some months after they return to his hometown of Silver Falls, Washington, another young woman — or three — are murdered, coincidentally right after David’s black-sheep brother Caleb returns to town. Is it a coincidence? If not, then why is Caleb so devilishly attractive?
Spoilers behind the cut. They’re always possible, but in this case, I’m telling you that there are definitely some there.
The jig is up fairly early in the book; probably fifty pages in, the reader should know enough to solve the mystery. However, as has been pointed out (especially in the comments on this review at Dear Author), Ms. Stuart had the choice of leaving it as a mystery and making the romantic aspects of the book really, really creepy (instead of just mildly creepy) or to give us enough clues early on and make the dramatic irony the strong point to let the romance develop a little more. Before I go on, though, let me make this clear: this is a serial-killer book. Fortunately, it has very little on the “early life and education of the killer” aspect, and there is very little on-screen killing — just once, as a matter of fact, although a lot of threats and menacing.
My favorite character was Sophie, the thirteen-year-old math genius daughter. Her relationship with her mother is vaguely reminiscent, to me, of the father-daughter relationship shown in the TV series “Castle” — although in some ways the daughter grew up early, not a bit of it seems to be detrimental to either girl’s psyche. The fact that Sophie (and her friend Kristen) are shown as being incredibly resilient — not to mention a bit gory-minded, wanting to know details of the case and not being traumatized by hearing them — was also refreshing. Not all girls stand on chairs and shriek when they see rats, and I found Sophie and Kristen to be awfully authentic depictions of a certain kind of thirteen-year-old girl.
I was also quite fond of the aforementioned Kristen’s mother, Maggie Bannister, the sheriff. She wasn’t over-the-top hard-as-nails, the way that some fictional female police officers can be, and she seemed to be able to find a good balance between being a mother and an officer of the law. Of the other characters, David to me sort of automatically looked like Michael C. Hall, who plays a ‘good’ serial killer named Dexter in the eponymous series, but more importantly played a mild-mannered, control-freak character named David in Six Feet Under,” another HBO series. (David’s motivations were entirely different, though.) I found him awfully creepy, frankly, even when he first showed up. His brother Caleb always reminded me of a wolf, although I don’t remember Ms. Stuart using that description, and their father was so perfectly himself that I found it impossible to dislike him.
Rachel walked the narrow line between willful blindness and being TSTL (too stupid to live). I really wanted to believe the best of her — that she was ignoring all the little things that seemed to be wrong or inconsistent out of a combination of deep-seated emotional wounds and fear, but once in a while I wondered about her. A good deal of the plot hinges on Rachel not knowing certain things, and although it may be frustrating for the reader, that’s where the drama and the tension build. I’m not exactly sure if I can detail any of the other things I liked about the book without giving away too much (yes, more than I’ve already given away), but I’ll conclude by saying that I would only recommend reading this during daylight hours, and that overall I found the romance believable but I’m certain that the hero and the heroine will not have the prettiest happily-ever-after; they’re both too strong-willed for that. 4/5 stars, and recommended for fans of romantic suspense and serial-killer stories.