A Kiss to Die For
A Kiss to Die For is something of a rarity: it’s a historical romantic suspense novel set in post-Civil War Abilene, Kansas. It’s an intriguing combination, and the book had some aspects I really enjoyed. Unfortunately it was also quite a slow read, and I had trouble warming up to the heroine.
Anne Ross has been meeting the trains in Abilene as long as anyone can remember; it’s just something she does. The townspeople seldom even wonder whether she meets trains because she wants to leave town or because she’s hoping someone she knows will disembark. One day as she waits she is stunned to see a man practically thrown off the train, followed by notorious bounty hunter Jack Scullard (aka Jack Skull). Even though Jack is bringing a wanted man to jail, no one in Abilene wants him around.
Well, no one except Anne, who finds herself immediately intrigued by such a handsome, dangerous man. Anne has plans to leave Abilene and strike out on her own, and she thinks that Jack might just be the man to help her do it. Everyone in town assumes that she wants to marry Bill, the man who has been tepidly courting her for about a month. But since Anne is living in a household full of abandoned women (her mother, aunt, and grandmother), she’s determined never to marry and risk the same fate.
Jack intends to stay in town despite the lukewarm welcome. He’s on the trail of a serial killer who is strangling pretty young women from Texas to Kansas, and Abilene’s sheriff is happy to have the help. Jack plans to steer clear of Anne; after all, Anne’s a nice girl, and he’s not the marrying type. But Anne’s Aunt Sarah actually asks Jack to court her niece, figuring it will spur Bill to finally propose. Before Jack knows it, he’s kissing Anne right at the train depot, in front of God and everybody. Despite all desire to the contrary, Anne and Jack find out that perhaps they are the marrying type after all. Meanwhile, the killer continues to murder unsuspecting young women, and Anne seems a likely target. Jack needs to discover the killer’s identity before it’s too late.
Like most C level reads, A Kiss to Die For is a mixed bag. Fortunately, it gets better as it goes along (a scenario I definitely prefer over the “starts well, then tanks” alternative). Anne is mostly responsible for the slow start: she’s a wishy-washy heroine with whom it’s difficult to identify. She and her mother and aunt all live under the thumb of her domineering grandmother, a woman who is in desperate need of a slap upside the head, or at least a serious talking to. No one in the house can breathe without asking Grandma’s permission first. It’s a wonder Anne didn’t take the train out of Abilene years ago, and it’s difficult to sympathize with a heroine who is little more than a doormat. When Anne manages to locate her backbone mid-book, my enjoyment increased dramatically. Other characters begin to stand up to the grandmother too, and I couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t done so years ago.
The writing itself has its ups and downs as well. Dain has a deft hand with descriptive phrases, and I found myself pausing now and then to admire a well-crafted sentence. She also writes affecting love scenes without resorting to purple prose. On the other hand, I noticed several distracting point of view shifts – and I am not a reader who usually pays a great deal of attention to point of view. My hunch is that those who are very bothered by shifting POV would find this book frustrating.
The plot, like the writing and the characters, has its good and bad points. The suspense thread is fairly engaging, and the killer is not the obvious choice, which is refreshing. But the squeamish should be forewarned – the book contains scenes of graphic violence. I also liked that Anne had a warm relationship with the town’s minister, and consulted him several times for advice. He’s portrayed as caring and open-minded, and he gives her some good counsel. However, there are two plot threads that are solved abruptly at the end. It comes across as something of a quick fix when a more thorough treatment would have been preferable.
On the whole I’d give this book a marginal recommendation. It’s better than many Westerns I’ve read recently, and many of the grating aspects of the book improve as it goes along. I wouldn’t run to the bookstore to get this one, but you could do worse.