Although At Close Range is the eleventh book in Laura Griffin’s Tracers series, I didn’t feel as though I’d missed out by not having read the previous ten books. Information about the Tracers themselves and the highly advanced forensic facility at which they work is disseminated quickly and without getting bogged down in too much detail; and even though some characters from the earlier novels make appearances, they are here as secondary characters and there’s no overlap of their stories with this one.
The plot is fast-moving and complex, with plenty of action and suspense and a focus on a particular area of science which is very relevant, giving the story a really up-to-the-minute feel. But not everything is flashy and hi-tech; the plotlines and characteristics are very strongly grounded in reality – even for a Brit whose knowledge of the US justice system comes primarily from watching the various police procedurals which grace our TV screens ;).
Recently-minted Detective Daniele (Dani) Harper is both pleased and wary when she is assigned as lead detective on the case of the double homicide of a college professor and the young woman with whom he was having an affair. While it’s flattering that her boss, Ric Santos, feels she’s up to the job, the fact that the victims were both on staff at the local university means the case is going to attract a lot of media attention, and deep down, Dani is worried that she’s not ready to take on a leadership role. But she’s nothing if not tenacious so she grits her teeth and throws herself into the investigation, determined not to let Ric down and to show that she – the daughter of a cop and sister of a prosecutor with the DA’s office – has earned her place through dint of sheer hard work and not because of her family connections.
Firearms and ballistics expert Scott Black joined the Tracers – the forensic team at the Delphi Center – when a knee injury forced him to retire from his work as a Navy SEAL. He and Dani have known each other for around fifteen years owing to his friendships with her brothers, so he’s always treated her like his best friend’s kid sister. But that changed a few months earlier when they shared a drunken New Year’s Eve kiss, and things have been awkward between them ever since. Dani has fancied Scott for years, but never thought anything would come of it – and while he is equally attracted to her, according to the unwritten code of guy friendship, his friend’s little sister is strictly off limits.
When Scott arrives at the crime scene, Dani isn’t sure whether to be relieved or dismayed. She knows he’s the best at what he does, but doesn’t want the feelings she still harbours for him to get in the way of their working together. Worse, it’s obvious right from the start that this is going to be a tough case. The crime scene is surprisingly unhelpful; the female victim had no ID or phone – or none that was found – and the bullets and shell-casings retrieved are useless. Good old-fashioned policing reveals the dead woman to have been Tessa Lovett, research assistant to James Ayres, professor of microbiology, and the woman with whom he’d been having an affair for quite some time. Moreover, both victims had previously worked together in New Mexico, and both had recently relocated to San Marco – to a less prestigious university – and taken pay cuts, neither of which makes sense.
The ante is well and truly upped when Dani’s house is broken into late at night and her ID and laptop are stolen. She gives chase but is unable to catch up with the interloper – and it becomes even more evident that she’s dealing with something other than a simple crime of passion perpetrated against an adulterous husband. Events take an even more surprising turn when Scott is implicated in the crime and he is suspended from duty. Whoever is behind the murders has planned meticulously, always seeming to be one step ahead of Dani in a bewildering game of cat and mouse as each lead she uncovers seems doomed to be cut off before she can pursue it. And although Scott is officially off the case, he’ll be damned before he leaves the task of proving his innocence to someone else, even someone he trusts as much as Dani. But his determination to protect her as well as to find out who has framed him risks the integrity of the evidence and the entire case; and when the perpetrators put them firmly in the firing line, their relationship is tested even as the ever-present attraction between them ignites into something neither is quite sure how to handle.
The suspense story is extremely well-put together, with lots of unforeseeable twists and turns and moments of high-octane drama, and I found myself on the edge of my seat several times. Ms. Griffin really knows how to pile on the tension without taking things too far; as an example, there’s a brilliant set-piece around the middle of the book which is a terrific example of how to write a heroes-in-peril action scene, and in which the descriptions and imagery are so vivid that it was like I was watching a movie in my head.
The romance between Scott and Dani is well done, too, although it’s secondary to the suspense plot. The pair has known each other for years, so their unacknowledged mutual attraction is of fairly long standing and the chemistry between them is pretty intense. Since he came back from Afghanistan, Scott’s only relationships have been of the one-night variety, and even though he wants Dani, he tries to hold back, believing she deserves better than him. His mixed signals – one minute he’s kissing her, the next he’s keeping his distance – and his insistence on pursuing his own investigation infuriate the hell out of Dani, but she also knows there’s no-one else she’d rather have watching her back. They circle around each other warily, neither of them wanting to admit to anything they can’t pull back from, but as the danger intensifies, it becomes impossible for them to go on denying that there’s more between them than sexual attraction.
At Close Range is an exciting, action-packed story that certainly won’t be the last I’ll read by Laura Griffin. The plot is well-constructed and the resolution is audacious but plausible with cleverly planted clues; and the two principals are strongly characterised and well-matched. Because the novels are standalones, it’s the sort of series one can dip in and out of, so I’ll definitely be revisiting the team at the Delphi Center in the not too distant future.
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