An Absence of Motive
Maggie Wells is the author of a number of contemporary romances (a couple of which have been reviewed here) and when I noticed her name attached to a new Harlequin Intrigue romantic suspense series, I decided to give her a try. An Absence of Motive has an interesting and fairly well developed plot, and I liked the set up, but the romance – once again – seems to have fallen victim to the limited page count because it’s almost non-existent, the couple of kisses the couple share are really shoe-horned in, and the same is true of the book’s only action scene, which is kinda blink-and-you’ll-miss-it right near the end.
Former DEA Agent Ben Kinsella was forced to leave Atlanta after an undercover operation that resulted in the death of a close friend and in his identity becoming known to the drug ring he’d infiltrated. He’s since relocated to the small Georgia town of Pine Bluff and taken up a position as sherrif, nominated for the job by the town’s most influential resident, Henry Masters, whose forebears founded Masters County and the lumber business that employs many of the local residents. When the book opens, Ben has just been called to the scene of the death of a young man named Cliff Young – a foreman at Timber Masters and a close friend of Henry Masters’ late son, Jeff – out at his family’s cabin on Sawtooth Lake. Ben is waiting for the ME to arrive when Masters bursts into the cabin, followed by a gorgeous woman whose body language screams her wish to be anywhere else. Masters introduces her as his daughter Marlee, a newly qualified attorney, and tries to get Ben to give him some of the details of the case – but Ben politely sidesteps his questions, refusing to confirm or deny anything until he has more information.
Marlee Masters has no plans to give in to her father’s overbearing ways and return to Pine Bluff to run – or help him to run – Timber Masters. That had always been the role earmarked for her brother Jeff, but Jeff’s suicide a few months earlier has left a hole that Masters now expects Marlee to fill. Which she has no intention of doing – she’s got her sights set on making a career and life for herself in Atlanta.
When Cliff’s death is ruled a suicide, Marlee can’t help but start wondering if maybe her brother’s death – he took his own life at their family property on Sawtooth Lake – was no suicide, and that perhaps there is something far more sinister at work than mere coincidence. She takes her concern to Ben, but with no evidence whatsoever to go on, they’re at something of a dead end. When she’s tasked with looking into documentation relating to Timber Masters’ property holdings, Marlee starts noticing things that don’t add up – mass evictions for seemingly bogus reasons, development deals for property on Sawtooth Lake – and becomes even more convinced that Jeff’s death and Colin Young’s were not suicides and that they’re somehow connected.
The mystery in An Absence of Motive is well thought-out and although it moves fairly slowly, the pacing means there are no silly leaps of logic and that everything feels as though it’s progressing in a logical manner. The two leads are likeable, if not all that well fleshed out – I liked that Marlee transcends the poor-little-rich-girl trope, and Ben’s background and his observations on being a man of colour working as an LEO are interesting and relevant. There’s also a sub-plot about someone stalking Marlee and then spreading unpleasant rumours about her – and about her and Ben – which increases the tension and illustrates the claustrophobic, small-town setting. What works less well, however, is the romance between Marlee and Ben, which is severely lacking in chemistry and is perfunctory at best, and the supposed ‘twist’ at the end relies too much on coincidence. The climactic action scene seems almost as though it’s an afterthought, and the ending feels rushed – which was disappointing after such a promising start.
I liked the mystery in An Absence of Motive, and I liked the two leads, even though their romance is a bit lacklustre. I’m offering a low-level recommendation with that proviso – the mystery works better than the romance. I’ll keep searching for a Harlequin Intrigue title that gets the balance right.