I’ve only read a few books by Merline Lovelace, but in my limited experience she either writes books with richly developed romance and somewhat weak plots, or richly developed plots and somewhat weak romance. Even though After Midnight is an example of the latter, the intriguing mystery in this story is strong enough to make this an enjoyable read and to merit a recommendation.
Lt. Colonel Jessica Blackwell has been assigned to Elgin Air Force Base in Walton County, Florida for just the last three months. Yet, inexplicably, the real estate agent through whom she rented her condo commits (apparent) suicide soon after her arrival, speaking her name in his last breath. In investigating the incident, Sheriff Steve Paxton discovers that Jessie Blackwell actually grew up locally and that she and her mother were run out of town when she was just seven. It’s not long before another death is linked to Jessie and an attempt is made on her life, as well. Just what happened 25 years ago that led her and her mother to leave town, who’s killing those involved, and why now?
The answers to those questions make for a riveting, suspense-filled plot. I was as puzzled as the characters were regarding the identity of the killer, and the twists and turns of the investigation kept me guessing. Lt. Colonel Blackwell oversees the stocking of fuel supply lines for the Air Force, a hazardous operation in and of itself since literally millions of gallons of fuel are pumped and checked and stored at Elgin AFB every day, making the risks of a fuel spill or an explosion very real. The lieutenant colonel is the replacement for the previous officer in charge who ran afoul of the EPA and since she’s already had to demote one of her subordinates for shoddy work – could the attempts on her life be either of these men out for revenge?
The Southern locale, the heroine’s deprived background, and the way old crimes come back to haunt the present reminded me strongly of Linda Howard’s After the Night (even the titles are close!), but the similarity ends there. As tightly plotted and intricate as the mystery is, the romance is surprisingly lackluster. Unlike After the Night, the protagonists here didn’t know each other before and their chemistry is not convincing, even though Sheriff Paxton has the hots for Jessie almost immediately. He asks her out several times only to meet with a positively chilly response each time. She is absolutely clear in her refusals, so his persistence became swiftly irritating to me. He seemed as confident in his charms as the loutish Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Yet, in what seemed like a totally unconvincing 180 degree turn a few chapters later, Jessie suddenly becomes equally needy for him. They rarely have any conversations that don’t involve the ongoing investigation into the murders, so their relationship seems built completely upon animal attraction. While the two of them seem like perfectly nice people and quite competent in their jobs, we don’t get to know them all that well. Jessica is a bit more fleshed out due to the backstory involving her mother, but we don’t really learn how she became the woman she is today.
The resolution to the mystery is satisfying, and I figured out the identity of the murderer about two steps ahead of the characters, but not much before. As a mystery and a thriller this book works perfectly, and the true-to-life details of the workings of a modern Air Force Base lend the book believability and gravitas. The weakness of character and relationship development surprised me utterly since the last book I reviewed by Merline Lovelace, The Horse Soldier, was an emotional wringer with characters whose relationship was complex and intensely believable. In that book it was the plot that I felt was weak. If Ms. Lovelace would just write a book with characters and plots which are equally engaging it would be a DIK for me for sure.