A Perfect Cover
Like other novels in Silhouette’s new Bombshell line, A Perfect Cover is not a romance. It’s a suspense novel starring a smart and resourceful female heroine, working undercover to solve a series of ugly murders. It’s pretty darn good.
The book opens with a couple of episodes out of the life of our first-person-narrator, Lacie Reed. She was the child of an unknown Vietnamese woman and an equally unknown Afro-American serviceman. Growing up in an orphanage in Vietnam, she was taunted with the racial slur bui doi. She escaped from Vietnam as a child and was adopted from a refugee camp by the family of an influential U.S. Senator, Duran Reed. As an adult, she works for an interagency task force headed by her beloved Uncle Duran. Her unusual looks allow her to pass as a Mexican immigrant; she takes on a mission to uncover the identities of those who smuggle immigrants into the US. She is trapped inside a trailer in the desert with dozens of others, and her resourcefulness saves their lives.
Those two episodes aren’t part of the plot of this book, but tell us a lot about Lacie (her American name is derived from her Vietnamese one, Lai Sei). She is a master of disguise. She is resourceful, clever, determined, and intuitive. Most of all, she’s a survivor.
Lacie’s Uncle Duran was one of the great influences on her life; the other, Tinh Vu, is a Vietnamese man who befriended her as a little girl striving to adjust to her new life in America. Uncle Tinh is her link to her Vietnamese heritage. When Uncle Tinh asks her to come to his home in New Orleans to help solve the murders of several people living in that city’s Little Vietnam quarter, Lacie agrees. But Duran forbids her to go, and fires her when she insists. As a parting shot, Duran tells Lacie to keep an eye on Tinh, who, he claims, is involved in illegally smuggling Asian immigrants into the country. Lacie knows that such immigrant-smuggling operations usually sell the female immigrants into the sex trade; it’s a vile accusation against her uncle Tinh, and she refuses to believe a word of it.
In New Orleans, Lacie contacts a detective named Anthony Beauprix. He’s the only one on the police force who believes that the three murders are related, but he can’t figure out how. He’s reluctant to accept Lacie’s help, because his chivalrous nature hates the thought of putting a dainty little woman in danger. Lacie informs him that she’s going undercover in Little Vietnam, whether she has his support or not.
She poses as a teenage runaway with pink spikes in her hair. Soon she has a job waiting tables in a popular Vietnamese restaurant, where she has ample opportunity to eavesdrop upon her employers and customers. Adding emotional impact to the mystery are Lacie’s own divided loyalties. How will she cope with the mounting evidence that her beloved Uncle Tinh is involved in immigrant smuggling?
Lacie solves the mystery using her considerable intelligence and intuition. She is a compelling and likable heroine, and the author doesn’t make the mistake of turning her into a superwoman. While Lacie is strong and in good shape, when she is attacked by two men armed with cudgels, she fights but loses. The experience terrifies her and makes her cry. This scene made me sympathize with the heroine, helped me understand how truly dangerous her mission is, and made her eventual triumph over these same goons all the sweeter. This is far more effective than if our five-foot-tall heroine had sent the bad guys running with a quip and a few karate chops.
There are a few weaknesses. Chief among them is the wordiness of this book. Tan likes lots of description, which slows down the action. Sometimes a few short lines of dialogue would be far more immediate and effective than all the paragraphs of describing. In other words, the author has a tendency to tell rather than show. Take, for instance, this section about Lacie and Beauprix:
“I know you’re doing what you think is right, but can’t you try to be a little safer about it all?” he asked me over the phone.
That’s when I laughed.
And he got angry.
We argued about his right to tell me how to do my job. He thought he had the right. I assured him he didn’t. Shortly after that, we ended our conversation.
That sound really stilted – short paragraphs and all – and it’s just a really bad way to illustrate the relationship between these two people. There is (though you wouldn’t guess it from that passage) a romance between Lacie and Beauprix. I grant that the romance is not the focus of the book at all; nevertheless, if an author wants me to believe that my heroine has fallen in love with a guy, she has to let me get to know him a little. Telling me about their conversations, rather than showing them to me, keeps the characters at a distance. As a result, Anthony Beauprix is never more than a shadow, and the romantic portion of this book isn’t successful. (Another drawback in the romance department: we’re told that Anthony Beauprix is a homicide detective who is also the multi-millionaire scion of an old Creole planter family. Yeah, right. Only in a romance novel – and that’s jarring, because this isn’t a romance novel. The presence of a howling romance cliché right in the middle of it was distracting, to say the least.)
In spite of those flaws, A Perfect Cover is an entertaining and suspenseful read. Lacie is the kind of heroine I love – one who isn’t invulnerable, but doesn’t let her vulnerabilities stop her. The mystery is suspenseful, and the ending was a surprise to me. If you’ve been disappointed in other Bombshell novels, give this one a try.