by Dawn Brown, contemporary (2008)
Samhain Publishing, $5.50, ISBN 978-1-60504-047-9
Since her sister Michelle vanished twelve years ago, Haley Carling can only watch as her family fall apart. Her parents fell into depression that they never recovered from, her mother seek solace in the bottle, and her father eventually died of a heart attack while Haley and her siblings - they were never that close to begin with - began drifting apart. I haven't even mentioned how Haley's sister made out with Haley's fiancé at their father's funeral, have I? This is one jolly family we are talking about here.
When the story opens, a body had been recently found buried in the basement of the house belonging to Haley's grandmother. When the body is identified to be Michelle's and since the Carlings are the ones who lived in that house until they sold it recently, guess who the cops suspect of having to do with Michelle's body ending up in that basement.
Meanwhile, Dean Lawson's timing can't be worse as the former black sheep of Hareton just has to come back to town right in the middle of all that drama. He dated Michelle for two months or so before Michelle disappeared. As a result, when she disappeared, he became the prime suspect. Even if there was no proof linking him to Michelle's disappearance, he was perceived as her killer by most of the folks in town. When he learns that Michelle's body has been found, he can't resist coming back to... he has no clear what he wants to do, really - maybe clear his name or something.
Living Lies has a familiar set-up for a romantic suspense. We have a small town, a heroine who has to take care of the dysfunctional family while running the family furniture restoration business at the same time, and the former bad boy of the town. I won't be surprised if some readers find Haley unlikable, but I can understand her prickly attitude. Who wouldn't be miserable in her shoes? Her mother is a nasty drunk, her older brother and sister leave the worst of the caregiving responsibilities to Haley, and Haley understandably feels really trapped by her situation, especially when she can barely stand being the same room with her increasingly alcohol-dependent mother or her siblings. Meanwhile, Dean's return and Michelle's body being found naturally reopen old cans of worms to the point that someone becomes desperate enough to kill again to stop Dean and Haley from getting to the bottom of Michelle's murder.
Living Lies is a good story but it is a failure as a romantic suspense. You see, when a romantic suspense is populated by a cast of clichés that play out their roles according to the script - as is the case with Living Lies - there isn't much suspense to be had as a result. When I come across the killer early in the story, I tell myself, "Oh yeah, Common Clichés 101 rules make it very clear that this fellow is the bad guy who will reveal all in the grand denouement!" Imagine my dismay when a playful throwaway thought turns out to be a correct prediction. All I have to do to see through the author's attempts at putting in red herrings is to recall some of the more common tropes that are overused in romantic suspense. In that respect, Living Lies is not a good romantic suspense story.
On the other hand, this story is very hard to put down because the author's prose is most gripping. Ms Brown builds up tension very well and she also sets up the atmosphere so well that I can feel the cold of winter on my skin as I turn the pages of this story. The characters are unduly miserable, but I find that I can sympathize with them. The relationship between Haley and Dean has to fight for space with the suspense elements and all things considered, it's a pretty believable one, I feel.
All in all, Living Lies is a very gripping and enjoyable read as long as I don't expect to be blown away by the suspense.
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