Secret Shadows
by Judie Aitken, contemporary (2004)
Berkley, $6.50, ISBN 0-425-19941-X


Secret Shadows has one of the most heartbreaking first chapters I have ever read. Undercover FBI agent Dane White Eagle returns to Cold Creek Lakota to spend Christmas with his twelve year old sister Kylee. Kylee has a brain tumor that is slowly killing her, and this Christmas could be her last one. The very night Dane returns ends with tragedy when it seems like Kylee, after overhearing her brother and her mother discussing her condition, finds his gun and uses it to commit suicide.

Kylee was actually murdered, and Dane is certain of that. Kylee was paralyzed in her left hand, you see, and let's just say that the person setting up the scene to look like a suicide didn't take that into consideration. When Dane finds himself suspected by the cops for what could have been a case of "mercy killing", Dane's superiors seize the opportunity to send Dane to prison. You see, shortly before this story opens, Dane has put the bad guy running a drug dealing ring out of the reservation into prison. There are still some loose ends that have to be cleaned up. The villain trusted Dane, not knowing that Dane is an undercover agent, so having Dane in the same prison with the bad guy can be useful indeed. Because Dane is convinced that he can nail the person responsible for Kylee's murder by going along, off to jail he goes.

Our heroine Claire Colby is a doctor who happened to be on duty when Dane brought Kylee to the hospital the night Kylee was shot. You're probably wondering how Claire and Dane are going to have a relationship when one of them is in prison, but don't worry, Ms Aitken will make sure that there is a way that doesn't involve bribing a few folks to allow a conjugal visit to take place.

If you are thinking of Prison Break while reading the synopsis, well, let me say that there is one similarity between that TV series and this story, at least - both have highly implausible twists and turns of the story line. I'm still trying to figure out why Dane has to do everything by himself, to the point of letting himself be set up as the noble martyr in this story for the sake of seeing justice done for his sister. Then again, it does seem as if the twists and turns of this story exist deliberately to make Dane a righteous martyr just in time for a Christmas bonfire.

Dane is an appealing martyr in that he is doing it all for the greater good - for the people, for the drug dealer's victims, for his sister - and I can't help but to want to give that man a big hug. He can't catch a break. His mother is the kind of woman who has such terrible taste in men that she blindly believes the worst men ever while rejecting the very people around her who love her. (And frankly, I feel that she got off way too easily in the end considering how she treated Dane in this story - a few hard bitchslaps at the very least are in order.) But at the same time I have a hard time believing that nobody knows that he is an FBI agent and that he has to assume the guise of a lowly paid security officer and therefore disappointing his mother in order to hide his real job. I also am not too convinced that he has to end up in jail and take the blame for his sister's death. There are many things here that happen just so that Dane can look really sad and noble when he's nailed to the cross.

Claire is a pretty good heroine, but unfortunately, like most heroines in a story heavy in Native American lore, she ends up more like a moony poster girl for affirmative action than anything else. Her relationship with Dane is quite contrived in that Ms Aitken resorts to mumbo-jumbo like dreams and coincidences to force those two to bump into each other often.

Despite the romance and the suspense that come off as too contrived for their own good, the story is a very readable one. I suspect that this has plenty to do with poor Dane. He's such a noble martyr willing to bite the big one for the greater good that I just have to find out what will happen to that darling. He deserves some happiness in his life, after all. Ms Aitken also did an excellent job in bringing out both the beautiful and bleak aspects of life in a reservation where poverty and social ills are widespread. Some heavy handed preaching is present, but that is to be expected, considering the kind of romance novels we are dealing with here.

All in all, that dear broken but beautiful Dane's story make a very entertaining and often sobering read especially with the holidays being just around the corner. I'll remember to give a little bit more to those kids who always make the rounds around this time asking for donation.

Rating: 81


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