If Nora Roberts were beginning her career today, a book like Black Hills wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to move her out of the pack. Still, for fans and those looking for a reliable read, there are pleasures to be found here.
The book begins with 11 year-old Cooper Sullivan’s “sentence” to spend the summer away from his home in New York with his grandparents in South Dakota. Cooper is surly and bitter, and believably so since he’s faced with his parents’ crumbling marriage and a firm conviction that he’s been dumped by his mom and dad. Enter Lil Chance, a daughter of the Black Hills and perfect – really, really perfect – parents.
Lil and Cooper become childhood best friends and, eventually, lovers, punctuated by long separations when Cooper goes back east every winter. Their penultimate moment occurs when they spy a rare cougar up close – a moment that changes Lil’s life. Oh, and they find a murdered hiker, too.
Lil and Cooper break up for reasons that come perilously close to a Big Mis, while Lil eventually gets her doctorate and opens a refuge for big cats near her perfect parents’ home and Cooper becomes a cop and, eventually, a P.I.
When Cooper’s grandfather (and, yes, his grandparents are perfect, too) injures himself, Coop takes the opportunity to simplify his life by moving back to South Dakota. At first Lil is bitter over what she sees as Coop’s betrayal, but soon enough comes around. In the meantime, both Lil and Coop are forced to deal with murders in the community and threats to the big cats Lil loves.
Honestly, if you’ve ever read a Nora Roberts romantic suspense before, then this book holds few surprises. The characters are interesting enough, but familiar. The suspense plot is a bit skimpy since the identity of the murderer is known fairly early to the reader and what we know of him is limited to standard serial killer POV. And there’s no denying that to me the book felt seriously padded. There is a definite saggy middle, then the action picks up, only to drop off again in the book’s final quarter until the final confrontation – which takes place about 100 pages too late.
So why the B-? Because Nora Roberts knows how to tell a story – far, far, far better than most writers out there. I also very much enjoyed the big cats who the author manages to bring to life for the reader without ever anthropomorphizing them, which I am quite sure is not easy.
If you are a Nora Roberts junkie and you need your fix, you will very likely find enough to enjoy in Black Hills. I did. But is it Roberts at her best? Not even close.