The Shadow Side
by Linda Castillo, contemporary (2003)
Berkley, $5.99, ISBN 0-425-19102-8


On the bright side, Linda Castillo's "I'm free! I'm free! Sayonara Harlequin!" follow-up to her horrendous big-time debut The Perfect Victim is a much better written book. It is also a somewhat refreshing romantic suspense story in that it does not have even one serial killer in sight. On the other hand, the plot is riddled with some gaping holes in logic, the execution of the story is repetitious, and the characters have a tendency to whine too melodramatically.

Det Sgt Adam Boedecker is the ever-ubiquitous "recuperating from injury (brain injury this time around), angry, brooding, and rude" cop hero. When his brother and the brother's wife died in what appeared to be his brother's killing his wife and then himself, Adam decides to strike out on his own to get to the bottom of the matter. He learns that his brother, along with many other people, has been taking a new drug, Valazine, for depression. Valazine may or may not be making these people act in uncharacteristically violent behavior. His investigation leads him to Dr Elizabeth "Eli" Barnes, the researcher who's in charge of the development and testing of the drug. When Eli's superior and mentor is murdered after he offers to talk to Adam, these two realize that things may be more sinister than a mere screw-up in testing of Valazine.

One of the problems of this story is that I soon realize, along with Eli, that information are all over the place in this story. Why doesn't Eli notice anything sooner? It is somewhat implausible to learn that as the person in charge of the project, she is not even aware of a death among the human test volunteers until she digs into the files. Eli comes off looking like a clueless dolt as a result. Since people died in this case, she's pretty criminally clueless. There are many small details - such as Eli's using the password "valazine" to protect her computer files - that all add up to a pile of logical inconsistencies in this story.

Another problem is Adam. Eli is the stereotypical nerd-with-no-life heroine, but at least she doesn't grate on my nerves. Adam, however, is written as a tortured hero. Unfortunately, he comes off as a whiny windbag instead. A common and repetitious pattern in this story is Adam manipulating or dragging Eli all over the place, coercing her to tell him what he wants to know. Of course he will feel bad afterwards, but he keeps doing this coercive routine again and again nonetheless. Adam comes off as not only an overemotional and lousy cop, he is also a victim to his tendency to let his emotions get the better of him. The ironic thing is that he could probably use some Valazine himself. Ms Castillo seems to be operating under the principle that "tortured" is an excuse for the hero for doing the same things again and again and then feeling remorseful each time. The author can only repeat and rinse so many times before Adam's whinefest gets old. Eli is a pretty bad match for him: she is even more overemotional than Adam and she is very easily manipulated as a result. Emotional and clueless - a really bad combination of traits, if you ask me.

The author has also toned down the melodramatic setting for her heroine's tearfest - while in The Perfect Victim the heroine weeps loud and brokenly on her knees in graveyards filled with broken tombstones and dying plants, Eli here only throws up on the streets, falls onto her knees, and then does the melodramatic wail-fest, and even then Eli can be forgiven for the drama - she has just discovered her mentor's dead body, after all. But Eli is still a tearbag and she doesn't actually do anything except gasping in shock, going teary-eyed with horror or despair, or being led all over the place by Adam. Towards the end, she confesses to Adam that she is naive, but that's not exactly reassuring. It's more in line with the characters' tendency to do the stupid first and then apologize about it before whining about how Bad Things in their past make them do it, they really can't help it sometimes.

I really want to enjoy this book more because The Shadow Side doesn't trot the derivative serial killer slash-slash-slash line. Unfortunately, with characters that behave more like overemotional and clueless dolts in a half-baked plot, the book doesn't exactly enthrall me. The romance, or to be more accurate, "sex scenes", is pretty much slapped on like an afterthought and doesn't end on a promising note. While some authors like Katherine Sutcliffe and Anne Stuart can make dysfunctional characters love and make me believe every word, Ms Castillo's letting her characters to wallow in their self-pity instead of trying to get over themselves make me wonder whether how these two could even last a week without self-destructing horrifically. There's a line differentiating tortured characters trying to do the right thing with tortured characters repeatedly doing stupid things while using their baggages to justify their inertia, and so far Ms Castillo is still at the wrong side of the line.

Rating: 64


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