Bad Girl
by Michele Jaffe, contemporary (2003)
Ballantine, $9.95, ISBN 0-345-46498-2


I hate to be proven wrong. I hate to eat humble pie. But for Michele Jaffe and her spectacular Bad Girl, I'll be more than happy to eat every slice and drown the most edifying meal with a jug of bitter remorse for every mean and nasty thing I've said about her books in the past. Don't be fooled by the cover: this is not a chick-lit trade paperback, it's a straight-out forensics thriller with a touch of romance that actually works. In a way, the writing in this book reminds me of Anne Frasier's equally engaging and elegant way with depicting the humanity in the investigators, but what lifts Bad Girl above the rest is its ability to shrug off the more derivative elements that plague most of the romantic suspense books out there.

Chicago America Thomas, who prefers to be known as Windy, is the head of criminalistics and forensics with the Las Vegas Police Department. She is a single mother of a six-year old named Cate, she is engaged to Bill, and she is trying to forget the ghost of her late husband. She and Ash Laughton, the chief of the Metro Violent Crime Unit, are thrown together when a series of murder take place across town. This killer, dubbed by the press as the Home Wrecker, kills the mother and the children when the husband/father is away. Like they always do in these novels, the Home Wrecker soon targets Windy and Cate. All clues lead to the unusual fact that the Home Wrecker may be a woman.

Okay, I'm a reader who is well-aware of the tricks romantic suspense authors always use as tools of the trade, and I must confess that I correctly identify the Home Wrecker the moment the psycho appears in the story. But still, it's a gripping and taut, and still unpredictable ride in a way, to the finish. Heavy in forensics and methodology that are in vogue since CSI becomes fashionable, nonetheless Windy and Ash manage to display very human aspects of their personalities to give Bad Girl a much needed respite from the violence and despair permeating the story. Windy is beautifully written as the intelligent and capable heroine who, despite her baggage, manage to overcome her fears and insecurities to be good at her job. Ash is actually more like a secondary character, without baggage, but his attraction to Windy is bittersweet in nature. There's Bill, of course, and Windy is always aware that her attraction to Ash may be due to the fact that she needs an escape from the brutality that she deals with daily and Bill is not around but Ash is. And don't worry about infidelity - there's none of that here. Windy never truly acknowledges and acts on her feelings until Bill is out of the picture.

I have my reservations about how the author wraps up the budding love triangle by nipping it in the bud without any genuine action on Windy and Ash's parts. Still, it's understandable, I guess, since Windy and Ash have more important matters to deal with in this story. I am also not pleased with the way the author wraps up the confrontation between Windy and the Home Wrecker in an annoyingly predictable "savor ex machina" way. This neat closure is more appropriate for derivative bandwagon romantic suspense books. Bad Girl has been surprising and thrilling me all this while with its intelligent approach to forensics, methodology, and complicated human emotions, so this closure is a huge let-down for me. It is a good thing, therefore, that the author closes the story with a gentle and uplifting note and an unexpectedly amusing look at mayoral politics.

Bad Girl truly creeps me out at times and I really wish I haven't read this book in the evening, because it's well into 3 am when I finally close this book and I just can't sleep easy afterwards. That will teach me to assume that this book will be hokey and I will put down the book with ease an hour or so later to go on with my life. The plot can be unnecessarily complicated at places, but Bad Girl is very well written and very coherent (a far cry from the author's usual messy prose), filled with genuinely creepy moments, laden with twists and red herrings that have me at the edge of my seat, and best of all, it has two human characters that I grow to care for at the end of the day. Windy and Ash are two weary and tired law enforcement officers that try so hard to remain upbeat and sane while confronting the worst aspects of humanity.

It looks as if straight thriller with a touch of romance is Michele Jaffe's true niche. I don't know what this new direction will mean to the author's historical series (not that I will be missing the series, to be honest). Still, if Bad Girl is just a hint of what this much improved Michele Jaffe is going to offer, sign me up for a few more trips on the Michele Jaffe roller-coaster ride!

Rating: 95


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