Last Breath
by Rachel Lee, contemporary (2003)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-60991-9


One thing I must say about Rachel Lee's latest romantic suspense - the romance is dead - dead you hear me, dead! - but the subject matter is interesting.

It deals with a murder of a young gay man aspiring to be a priest, and the closest they have to a suspect is Father Brendan Quinlan, a man whom rumor paints as a gay man himself. St Simeon's Parish is shocked when Father Brendan discovers the corpse of young Steve King crucified to the cross of the church. Into the investigation comes Det Matthew Diel, but Brendan's idealistic viewpoint soon becomes a frustrating counterpoint to weary and cynical Matt who sees evil in the world he lives in. Chloe Ryder, Matt's ex (who has time to start a fresh romance in a romantic suspense novel?), also steps in. She's an ex-cop who is now a lawyer, and there is a violent incident in her past that links her to Matt. (Then again, which heroine in a romantic suspense novel doesn't have such histories?) Faith, pragmatism, good, evil, whatever - the fun starts when Brendan looks set to be the next target.

Let's get this out of the way first: the romance? Dead. Matt and Chloe don't have time to start anything anew - they talked about it a little, but most of the time it's all about the crime. Which is good, because I'd rather not have the author insulting me with the usual "one sex scene and that's what we call romance" thing. Unfortunately, readers looking for romance will most likely to come away disappointed then. Matt's world weary outlook makes him a potentially intriguing romance hero, but he never actually gets to be anything more than the detective here. Same with Chloe - she's tough, she's smart, but she's also giving her 100% into the case.

Rachel Lee does a credible job painting Brendan's character at first, but he, like this book, soon becomes a very preachy soapbox for the author to launch her case against an overly-political Church. Brendan stops being a character and becomes a symbol of the author's inner Martin Luther - Brendan is perfect, Brendan is seen by the Church as a threat because he is all about the Real Thing and Faith, and Brendan Saves Gay Men From Themselves. Oh, and Brendan is straight, in case you're wondering.

When it comes to a book where faith is central to the plot, it is very hard to be unbiased because I have my own prejudices and belief system, and I am not a big fan of organized religion at all. In this case, my skepticism with Brendan soon becomes a major distraction to my enjoyment of the story. I'm more like Matt, there are so many times when Brendan refuses to cooperate with the cops that I really want to shake the priest silly. Like Matt said, why don't he just not call the cops and just die then, if he's so against the cops invading his and his parishioners' lives? It is also quite funny when the author ends up portraying the Church and the Military as pretty similar, especially with those Don't Ask, Don't Tell policies.

Ultimately, it is very hard for me not to snort when I get gems from Brendan like this one: "Well, this young man was gay. In fact, he converted to the church because we don't condemn gays, only homosexual acts. He felt more welcome in Catholicism than in the religion he was raised in." Am I the only way who feel like snorting in disbelief at that speech? It's like saying God loves chocoholics, He only condemns the act of eating of chocolate. How can one be gay and yet not be gay at the same time? Isn't a gay man's homosexuality an inherent part of his identity? And it must take a really sadistic gay man to embrace his sexuality only to then embrace a belief system that requires him to reject everything he really is.

The pro-homosexuality-acceptance elements in this story are just that - lip service. Brendan's speech above and the author's blundering the "surprise twist" of the story end up making a completely different point altogether: God loves gays, as long as these gays are dead or they don't, you know, do "homo stuff". And oh, God hates all terrorists.

I don't regret reading this book because it's interesting and it tries to tackle a risky (for a romance novel, that is) subject matter. But me being me, I can't say I adore it entirely either. Let's just blame it on irreconciliable differences and leave it at that.

Rating: 75


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