Dear Ms. Stuart—
When I saw that many of your older titles were finally available as eBooks, I thought I’d check one out. I never know whether one of your books will work for me or not, but the ones that do—Reckless and Black Ice are two of my all-time favorite novels—really do. I picked Moonrise based on its high ratings on Amazon. It’s an older book—first published it in 1996, almost ten years before Black Ice. I mention Black Ice because Moonrise reads like a pale version of that book. At its finish, I was irked at much of it and yet, in many ways, it mirrors the themes found in the Ice series which, in general, I enjoyed.
In both Black Ice and Moonrise, the hero spends a great deal of time trying to decide between two approaches to the heroine: death or sex. In Black Ice, the hero, Bastien (be still my beating heart), is a layered, complex guy, struggling in ways the reader can see with morality, with the heft our actions have, and with what it means to give up oneself to love. In Moonrise, the hero, James McKinley, is a Bud Light Bastien. James too is a killer who, while fighting for “the good guys,” realized his actions made him one of the bad ones. James too had a horrific childhood, his shaped in wounding ways by poverty and violence in Northern Ireland. Both men work for a shadow organization—in James’ case, it’s the wet work arm of the CIA—and both have killed so many times they’ve all but lost their humanity. And both, forced into company with women who place their lives at stake, find love and something worth living for in the arms of their unwanted companions. This setup works beautifully in Black Ice but disappoints in Moonrise.
In many of your stories, your hero is a stronger character than his love interest. This trend holds true in Moonrise. The heroine, Annie Sutherland, is, at 27, a pampered, sheltered, gorgeous girl. Every choice she’s ever made—what to wear, drive, even who to marry—has been defined by her father, Win Sutherland. Win, a CIA operative who went over to the dark side—Annie had no idea he was CIA, let alone a greedy killer—was found dead, six months ago, his neck snapped, at the bottom of his mansion’s porch stairs. In the months since her father died, Annie has slowly come to wonder at his death. The stories he told her about his past, upon reflection, don’t add up and, to top it off, there’s a work of art missing, a framed Irish sampler, she’s sure has been taken since his death. She’s thought about it and thought about it and has decided there’s no way her invincible Win could have fallen drunk to his death. She’s sure he was murdered. As Annie begins to look for her father’s possible killers, she’s led to James, a man she’s known all her life, now living in a shack on a remote island in Mexico. Annie, wearing high heels, a white suit, and carrying an overnight bag and a purse, shows up at James’s hovel determined to ask him to help her.
From the moment the book begins, as James is standing in the shadows outside his dilapidated cottage, watching Annie knock on his door, he’s thinking about blowing her brains out. James has killed so many people and knows those for whom he once killed are determined now to kill him. For James, there’s no reason anyone would show up in his life at this point except to want to take it. But then, he realizes the woman at his door is Annie, the daughter of his mentor and the girl he’s always longed to have. So, though he’s now thinking he should break her neck, he invites her in, hears her plea, and tells her he’ll help her find the answers, answers he tells her he’s sure she really doesn’t want to know. He drinks too much tequila, the two have elliptical conversation, and then he sends her (alone) off to bed. He stays up all night, drinking, thinking, and wondering. Should he send her on her way—he’s sure someone in the bad guy arm of the CIA will kill her—or kill her himself. Or, he wonders, after he’s wandered into her room, watched her sleep, and run his fingers through her tawny hair, is there another choice.
That other choice—and the options run through James’s brain for most of the novel—is to fuck her. There are two things one can count on in an Anne Stuart novel: death and sex. That combination can have great resonance—as it does, for example, in Ice Blue–or it can just be annoying. In Moonrise, it’s annoying.
The book’s plot is a slight one: James used to work for Win at the CIA, Win and Someone Else (it was obvious to me who the Someone Else was by the second chapter) went rogue, Someone Else had Win killed, and now Someone Else is working with the power-hungry General (he’s always referred to with a capital G) to take out James and, because she’s asking questions, Annie. James and Annie go on the run, bodies pile up, the General keeps meeting with Someone Else to rant about Someone Else’s failure to bump off Annie and James, and, through it all, James keeps wondering whether to kill Annie or fuck her. Normally James would just break her neck—his hands are more lethal than any weapon, a fact I found surprising given he’s an expert with guns, bombs, knives, and poisons—but he’s had “feelings” for her for years and he just can’t quite bring himself to off her. Plus, he’s longed to fuck her since she was twenty-one and “He could fuck and kill if he had to, he knew that. The danger was, he didn’t know if he could fuck and kill Annie Sutherland.”
James is supposed to be, deep down, one of those dark, murderous heroes who’s really a good man. He killed for all the right reasons at the command of his country or to save his or Annie’s lives. He’s Catholic and full of guilt about all his sins; he’d like to go out in a “blaze of glory” and leave his self-loathing life for good. He repeatedly warns Annie about himself and is, for much of the novel, fairly nasty to her. All of this is of course to protect her from his bad self. He thinks she’s an innocent; she deserves a life in the suburbs, babies, Volvos, and the love of a man whose soul hasn’t been destroyed by mayhem and violence. I found him to be paper-thin, a shadow of man, and incapable of transformative love.
Annie too was an unbelievable and exasperating character. She’s supposed to be brilliant—“Phi Beta Kappa at Georgetown University”—and yet she never once figured out that everyone around her, including her father and her ex-husband , worked for the CIA. She wears high heels to track down James on a deserted island in Mexico and then gets angry at the shoes when “they tortured her feet.” She’s aware James is constantly considering fucking her and/or killing her and yet, she refuses to part from him. At one point in the novel, James drugs her for three days so he can easily fly her halfway around the world. When she realizes what he’s done to her, she’s miffed, but not so miffed she doesn’t ask him, after watching him slit the throat of a thug who has, for no reason ever made starkly clear, just tried to kill her, “Would you take me to bed?” The spine she somewhat develops over the course of the book is a weedy one and her love for James—because of course she realizes she’s loved him for years—isn’t grounded in anything other than lust and how intoxicating she finds his power over her.
By the end of the story, James and Annie are together (and have found that missing sampler), but I have no faith the two will be happy nor did I really care. Their story isn’t one of love, it’s one of sex and death neither of which, in this book, is profound or erotic.
And, speaking of erotic, this book made me wonder about something. In Moonrise as well as other—but not all–of your books, the heroine is, prior to the first instant the hero shoves (and they are always shoving) his cock into her instantly wet “sex,” a woman who defines herself as frigid or sexually unresponsive. She is almost always described as hating going down, sexually at ease only when in the missionary position, and timid in bed. Then, with the hero, she has orgasms so intense she faints—the first time Annie and James have sex, Annie has two insta-orgasms and then, “There was no saving herself. She fell, through a million starry heavens, over and over, into the pitch black night of endless death.” After this extreme bout of passion, Annie (and heroines like her) is transformed into a sexually freed woman, willing climb on top, go down on her knees, and love every second of it. This bothers me. I dislike that Annie (and heroines like her) is only able to experience pleasure at the hands, etc… of one man who is a killer considering killing her. (This is not so in Ice Black and it is the reason that book is my favorite in that series.) I may be overreacting, but I see an icky subtext in that sort of sexuality—the women in these books who inherently enjoy sex are often evil and usually first fucked and then killed by the hero.
So, I didn’t really like either the heroine or the hero; the sex between them was, for me, unsexy; the plot was wafer thin; the villain obvious. It was still a fun book to read. Your writing is stringent and compelling. You rarely waste words and you use language adeptly. Moonrise has a dark, morbid, wry sense of humor running through it. You, in a few sentences, create strong, viable, easy to visualize scenes.
Here, it’s the first night Annie’s come to James’s island shack and she is now sleeping upstairs in his guest bed. (It’s pretty funny his ramshackle hideout has a guest bedroom.) James is, without a twinge of remorse, searching Annie’s luggage.
“She’d brought her vitamins, enough to stock a health food store. She’d brought tranquilizers and sleeping pills, both prescription. She’d brought a box of condoms. He wondered idly who she was planning to fuck. He doubted if it was going to be him. He took her purse and carried it downstairs with him, emptying it out on the cluttered kitchen table. He poured himself another glass of tequila as he sat down to look through it.”
Later in the book, as he watches her sleep, still slightly drugged from the medicines he slipped her, he unbuttons her blouse.
“She had small breasts, encased in a flimsy lace bra, and her nipples were hard in the chilly room. So was he.”
You use details well, rarely employing proper names—the lack of place, brands, and famous people makes your book effectively timeless—and when you do, they pack a punch. In this scene, one of James’s few friends has been killed and, as usual, Annie and James must immediately escape the no-longer safe house—owned by the now dead friend– in which the two are staying. James is sure his friend would have a backup escape vehicle. And, after searching the grounds, James and Annie find, in a derelict shack, a motorcycle. Annie, unhappy it’s not a car, asks on earth the friend would leave them a motorcycle. James answers,
“Not just any motorcycle.” James’s voice was odd, muffled, distant. “It’s a Vincent Black Shadow. Probably 1954 or thereabouts.” “So he left us an old motorcycle,” Annie said. “Do you think it will still run?”
(As a Richard Thompson fan, I read this bit with satisfaction. His song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning from his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh is National Public Radio’s most requested song according to Wikipedia.)
Ultimately, I’d say I enjoyed reading Moonrise, but didn’t really like it. At best I’d give it a C. Perhaps I’d be less critical if I weren’t such a admirer of Black Ice, but, knowing how well you’ve written about similar characters in a similar context made this book unsatisfactory. I’ve just bought the most recent of your Ice series, On Thin Ice, published last fall. I’m hopeful it, unlike Moonrise, will be yet another Anne Stuart novel I love.