Pitch Black
by Leslie Parrish, contemporary (2009)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22771-3

Pitch Black is in some ways similar to Fade To Black, the first book in Leslie Parrish's romantic thriller series revolving around the Black CATs, but it is also a pretty different book. While retaining the same ingredients that make the previous book a great read, this one is also less violent, with more attention shown to the developing romance between the main characters. If the previous book had you crossing yourself and praying for Ms Parrish's soul, this one may appeal to you nonetheless because of the book's reduced level of violence and heightened focus on romance.

CAT stands for Cyber Action Team. Don't laugh - according to Google, there really is such a division within the FBI. At any rate, in this book, the CAT is like the unwanted stepchild of the FBI. Wyatt Blackstone's division is not taken seriously by many people within the FBI. Some of these folks even react with outright scorn and hostile disdain when you mention the CAT to them. Alec Lambert therefore has an idea of what he is getting into when, after a major screw-up in his last task that caused the death of his partner, he is transferred from the Behavioral Analysis Unit to the CAT.

However, as luck - or misfortune - would have it, he arrives at the door of the CATs just when another case falls onto their lap. This time around, some villain has clearly watched the Saw movies too many times, because he's now creating elaborate deceptions to lure his online victims to meet him in real life, only these victims find themselves caught in elaborate scenarios concocted by this villain, "Darwin", that inevitably lead to their deaths. Two teenage boys were found drowned and frozen in a lake that winter after one of them fell for a variation of the Nigerian scam and brought his friend to meet this "exiled former finance minister" of some country.

It's a small world. Profiler Alec believes that "Darwin" may be the same guy he was after in his last assignment - the one that went horribly wrong - so he's more than happy to prove his chops to the CATs. One of the victims was in correspondence with online scam expert Samantha Dalton before he met his demise, so it isn't long before Sam is roped into the investigation as well. And what do you know, because of Sam's reputation as an online scam expert - she even had a bestselling book on the subject - she is the unwitting target of Darwin's affection. Unfortunately for Darwin, Sam prefers handsome FBI agents to creepy psychopaths.

Alec and Sam display some pretty impressive emotional baggage that every character in a romantic suspense story is obligated to carry. He is unlucky in love and, more significantly, his faith in his abilities has taken a severe beating after the botched assignment of his. It's inconvenient to harbor doubts about his ability to protect Sam when Darwin starts sending her his brand of whackjob love letters, but there you go. As for Sam, she saw her grandmother's health deteriorated beyond the point of no return after the poor woman got scammed out of everything she had by online con men, so Sam gave up her journalist job to dedicate herself to spreading awareness and exposing the tricks of the trade of online scammers. Along the way, she realized that her husband was a cheating SOB and the divorce wasn't pretty.

These two characters however don't wallow incessantly in self pity. Both characters instead focus on what is important - taking down the villain. Nonetheless, there is a very nice balance of investigative procedural scenes and quiet romantic scenes here. Ms Parrish manages to have both romance and suspense co-exist nicely here and compliment each other. I can believe in the romance at the end of the day and that is good. The characters are likable types. The heroine is somewhat too eager to shoulder the blame for events that are beyond her control for my liking, but Sam is all in all an alright heroine.

As for the suspense, I like that there are no contrived moments of stupidity to get the heroine to play the damsel in distress. Instead, there are plenty of good build-up and atmosphere building here. Darwin may seem like a cartoon whackjob on paper, but in this story, he is actually a chilling villain. While Ms Parrish may have toned down the level of violence here, I actually find Pitch Black a more psychologically troubling book when compared to the last one, because the victims here seem so human that I can barely stand to read about what Darwin does to them. Darwin is loathsome and vile, but at the same time, there is a discernible human aspect to his demented self that makes him an even more terrifying character. He could be real, and that's what I find very frightening about him.

I do feel that there is too much emphasis placed on a secondary story line that is best left for the next book, though. These scenes tend to interrupt the flow of the main storyline. But then again, it could be just me. Let me just say that I am not fond of the female character that stars prominently in the secondary story line because she encapsulates everything I am not fond of in suspense fiction or movies - Lily Fletcher is an emotional mess who wears her emotions on her sleeves, gets too over-invested in the cases she is working on, acts like a timid goldfish at other moments, and when it comes to the final showdown, goes down like the cliché of the "emotional eek-eek-eek empathic female agent" that she is. Still, I'm more than happy to let the author change my mind about Lily in the next book, although a part of me hopes that Lily shows up in the first chapter as a corpse and Wyatt gets a more rational girlfriend.

Another thing: I feel that Jimmy Flynt is a wasted character. If this is Silence Of The Lambs, he would have been the Hannibal Lecter to our main characters' Clarice Starling. You know, back when Hannibal Lecter was a creepy character and not the sad parody he is today. I feel that the author may have overplayed the whole Lecter-like aspect of Jimmy right down to Sam's behavior around him. While con men who would ruthlessly strip people of their money without remorse are clearly amoral types with a few screws loose in the head, Jimmy is - let's face it - at the end of the day a sleazy con man. The author has the opportunity to demonstrate to me how fearsomely charismatic Jimmy could be in a confrontation between Sam and Alec with him, but ugh, the story cuts to more of Lily's soap opera-like adventures of a neurotic agent and the whole interview takes place off-stage. I'm left without a good pay-off after all that build-up about Jimmy being this big bad boss that can show other online scammers a thing or two.

Still, all things considered, I find Pitch Black a very entertaining read. The pace is slower than that in the previous book, but it is by no means slow and sedate. This one is as gripping a page-turner as the previous book in its own way. I don't normally like to give too many back-to-back books by the same author keeper grades - I have a reputation to maintain, after all - but with Pitch Black, Ms Parrish isn't taking any prisoners.

Rating: 90

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