by Leslie Parrish, contemporary (2009)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22748-5
Leslie Parrish is not a new author. You may have known of her before - she wrote plenty of Harlequin Blazes and a few full-length romantic suspense stories under the name Leslie Kelly. However, there is a pretty good reason why she's using a new pen name for her Black CATs series for Signet - this book shows a new side to her writing. A very dark side - think of books by Anne Frasier and Tami Hoag, for example. If you are expecting another sexy romantic comedy with a dead body or two here and there, grab a pillow that you can hug while you're reading because this is going to be something you will never imagine Ms Kelly is capable of.
In Fade To Black, someone is using the Web to promote his ghoulish sick game: calling himself the Reaper, he'd auction his next murder to the highest bidder. The highest bidder gets to pick the method of execution of the victim, so to speak, and the Reaper will put up the clip of the murder for all to view and admire once the deed is done. Because the Web is involved, our hero Special Agent Dean Taggert and his colleagues are called in to investigate once the body count begins to increase. Dean is with CAT - Cyber Action Team. Okay, "Cyber Action" sounds like something people with no lives would do in Internet chat rooms, but seriously, there's actually a CAT within the FBI. Further investigations leads Dean and his team to the sleepy town of Hope Valley, Virginia, where our heroine Sheriff Stacey Rhodes discovers that a local MIA young woman was the first victim shown in the murder clip discovered by the CATs. As Dean and Stacey wade deep into smelly stuff to track down and stop the Reaper, she and Dean will also discover that they are attracted to each other.
I'd given the author a pretty hard time when it came to a few of her books written under the name Leslie Kelly because of pacing issues. Here, however, everything is near perfect. The build-up is very good - the momentum just keeps building to a feverish pitch as the suspense mounts and the good guys race against the clock to stop the Reaper before he strikes again. Even better, the author has done an excellent job drawing me into the main characters' crusade. I can feel the good guys' frustration when the Reaper eludes them yet again, for example, and I can definitely relate to and root for their passion to stop this sick bastard before he strikes again. The author has also done a pretty good job in making the villain a genuinely terrifying one. The Reaper isn't a typical gibbering lunatic - he's demented, sure, but he is also pretty smart. More terrifyingly, he can also sometimes come off as normal... human, even. That's why the Reaper is a terrifying villain - he's a monster lurking under a normal everyday fellow's sanguine façade.
My only complain is how the heroine pretty much stumbles upon the bad guy in the end. In real life, many such cases are solved due to good luck as much as hard work, but since this is fiction, I'd like to see the CAT team's 24/7 dedication to their investigation pay off a little, heh.
Now, the romance. You know me, when it comes to romantic suspense, I'm very particular about the balance between romance and suspense. I always find it hard to believe if our main characters spend most of the story having passionate sex or looking into each other's eyes when they have a serial killer to catch, for example. Here, Ms Parrish has struck the perfect balance between both elements. Some readers may not appreciate the fact that the two main characters do not get married and pop out the obligatory three kids in the epilogue, but I think Ms Parrish has done the right thing here. She gives me the best ending this story could have - two characters coming together in friendship as well as love to try to make a go at a happily ever after now that the nightmare that is their case is over.
What I love about this story is how Stacey is every bit involved in the case as Dean is. Ms Parrish allows her heroine to be as tough as nails when it comes to the job without making any contrived concessions to notions of "femininity". Both she and Dean are pretty angst-ridden characters, but what I love about these two characters is how they try to move forward instead of endlessly dwelling on those issues. For Dean, it is heartbreaking how he decides to devote himself to this case, even as he should try to spend more time with his kid (Dean is divorced, by the way), because he says that he needs to put the Reaper away to make the world safer for kids like his. Sigh, what a sweet and noble man he is, really. He and Stacey find succor in each other's arms from the case as best as they could, but it is always clear that these two will never allow their emotions to get in the way of their investigation. I like that. These two have a credible attraction, and the way they handle the attraction without compromising their case lends this story ample credibility as well. As I've said, I feel that Ms Parrish has struck the perfect balance between romance and suspense here without compromising one over the other.
And best of all, Fade To Black is a very entertaining story. It's gripping, it has me at the edge of my seat, and it even has me feeling scared - and you're looking at an unapologetic fan of gore-drenched horror movies here. The quiet moments when Dean and Stacey find solace in each other's company provides the tenderness to counter the bleak desolation that is the rest of the story. All in all, Fade To Black is fabulous.
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