Dear Laura K. Curtis:
You and I have followed and chatted with each other on Twitter for quite a while. I took note when your debut book was released, and when I saw Liz Mc2’s tweets about how much she was enjoying it, I downloaded the sample and enjoyed it so much that I bought the book and picked up where I had left off. I’m a fan of Romantic Suspense, but some of the stock plots and setups don’t work for me. But I couldn’t resist yours, and I’m very glad I went with my instincts.
The story opens with Lucy Sadler Caldwell, a bestselling true crime author, returning to her small Texas home town to investigate the long-ago murder of her mother, Cecile. Because Cecile was scorned as the town tramp, her brutal killing was only cursorily investigated by the local police, and Lucy is determined to find out the truth. She returns to their old home, accompanied by her younger brother, who was five at the time of the murder and remembers little of their past in Dobbs Hollow. Prepared to fight to get the police evidence she needs to begin her investigation, Lucy is surprised and pleased to discover that the Chief of Police is a newcomer who is more than willing to help her out. And while he may have secrets of his own, Ethan Donovan is not related to or conspiring with the town leaders, however much they try to control him.
As Lucy begins the process of solving the mystery of her mother’s death, she realizes that she also has to uncover the many secrets in her mother’s past. These secrets implicate a number of powerful town citizens and increase the hostility with which almost everyone in the town regards her.
Curtis does an excellent job of introducing Lucy and setting up the mystery storyline. I was on Lucy’s side from the minute she stepped out of the Range Rover and went into the police station to declare her varied weapons and the permits to use them, so I had no trouble believing that Ethan would be too:
Every battle called for a specific weapon, and over the years Lucy had become accustomed to carrying at least one at all times. Now, without the weight of a pistol at her hip or back, the reassuring bite of a sheath at her ankle, or even the knowledge of a can of Mace in her purse, she felt supremely vulnerable. But she could hardly walk into a police station armed to the teeth, no matter how much she might prefer to.
So instead of checking the bullets in a magazine, she patted the tight bun restraining her wavy hair, spritzed her neck with a touch of eau de toilette, and gave her appearance one last once-over in the rearview mirror. Good to go.
Sliding out of the Range Rover in a pencil skirt and high heels wasn’t easy, but when she turned to walk up the steps to the station house and caught a man on the sidewalk doing a double take, satisfaction swirled through her. The costume had been worth the effort.
It’s clear from that opening that Lucy is good at being in command of a situation, and that despite her difficult upbringing she has built a successful career that gives her confidence and expertise. She’s relieved that Ethan is supportive and she’s happy to have his help, but she’s not looking to him for solutions, in fact, her expertise helps his investigation when a woman is found murdered.
Ethan is a good match for Lucy; as an outsider, he doesn’t come with Dobbs Hollow baggage and he sees her as the professional she’s become rather than as her mother’s daughter (the way most of the town dismisses her). The disability he acquired in his former career as a Houston police officer goes some way toward leveling the natural physical advantages he would have over Lucy, so their working relationship feels more equal than I often find in Romantic Suspense. It takes a while for Ethan’s past to be revealed, and I found his secrets to be less awful than I expected, but overall he was a sympathetic and interesting character, with little of the hyper-masculinity that such characters sometimes project.
The mystery and suspense comprise a major portion of the book, so readers who want the romance to be front and center with the mystery taking a back seat might find the balance tilting too far in the non-romance direction. I enjoyed the mystery, which expanded from the single case of Cecile’s murder to encompass several others. It gets a bit too complicated by the end, when Cecile’s complex story becomes tied into other misdeeds in Dobbs Hollow, and the gothic darkness of the town starts to tip toward implausibility, but for the most part I found the twists and turns intriguing.
The downside of the verismilitude of the mystery and suspense aspects is that sometimes moving from the crimes to the romance was a bit jarring. There aren’t any of those annoying “we’re in danger, we’re hiding, let’s snog!” scenes, but the transitions from suspense to sensuality didn’t always work for me. I did buy Ethan and Lucy as a couple, though, and I think part of what made them convincing was that we saw them working together and talking about the town and the crime and their lives, not just radiating sexual tension and lust.
One of the problems I often have with the Romantic Suspense genre and with mystery-romance more generally is that the heroine is regularly being rescued by the hero. That doesn’t happen overtly here, but Lucy has a lot of bad things happen to her and Ethan is constantly having to show up to set things to rights. Granted, he’s the chief of police, so it’s his job, and Lucy is emotionally and practically able to cope without him, but I would have liked more scenes where she took the lead.
The setting of Dobbs Hollow really comes to life. There are a lot of characters, many of them related to each other, so occasionally at the beginning I had trouble keeping everyone straight, but by midway through the book I had a handle on the cast. There were a few sympathetic characters in the mostly suspicious and disapproving town, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Lucy’s school friend, Tara Jean the police officer.
Despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed this novel. The writing is strong, the characters come to life, and it’s a treat to have an interesting, complex female character who sends the message that she can solve her own mysteries and who doesn’t exhibit TSTL behavior. Ethan is a well-drawn hero, but this is really Lucy’s story, and she absolutely owns it. Grade: B