M.J. Rodgers was one of the reasons I subscribed to the Code Red series in the first place, but after my lukewarm response to her prequel to the series and the rest of the books so far, I was afraid to get my hopes up. Happily, Critical Affair turned out to be a good read, with her trademark intelligent characters and a complex mystery plot.
One foggy night a small passenger plane crashes into a hotel ballroom in Courage Bay, California. Jennifer Winn’s fiance and her best friend are both injured in the crash. In the immediate aftermath, Jennifer learns that they’ve been sleeping together for the last six months. When she confronts her fiance at the hospital, he’s unrepentant, claiming it’s just sex and nothing she needs to worry about. Furious, she dumps a pitcher of ice water in his lap, bringing the argument to an abrupt end.
Psychiatrist Michael Temple immediately recognizes Jennifer when he sees her in the E.R. They’d met five years earlier when she attended a grief seminar he hosted following the sudden death of her parents. On the final night of the seminar, she admitted that she had developed feelings for him. He was interested in her too, but he had to tell her that he was married. They haven’t seen each other since. Sensing that she needs to talk, he invites her out for a drink. As they catch up, it’s clear that the attraction between them is still there. They end up back at his place, where she sees that he obviously lives alone. Figuring that he must be single now, she makes the move she’d wanted to five years earlier, and they spend the night together.
The morning after brings some unwelcome surprises. When Jennifer asks him if he wants to spend the day together, Michael tells her he can’t because he’s going to visit his wife. Then the police come calling. Jennifer’s fiance died suddenly in the hospital under mysterious circumstances that had nothing to do with his minor injuries from the accident. It appears he was murdered, and since Jennifer had an angry, very visible confrontation with him hours before he died, the police want to know if she had anything to do with it. When it comes out that she and Michael spent the night together, they find themselves the prime suspects in her fiance’s murder.
As with all of Rodgers’s romantic mysteries, this is a very complex and densely-plotted storyline. It’s more focused on the mystery than the romance, with the love story often overshadowed by the plot. This may bother readers who want more of an even balance, or the suspense to be the secondary element. I liked the love story and found it satisfying, with the amount of romance just about right for this particular plot.
One thing I always appreciate about Rodgers’s books is how smart her characters are. This one is no exception. For instance, Jennifer is a meteorologist for the local TV station, and it’s not just some wallpaper career. The author backs it up with details and scientific information that show Jennifer really is an accomplished scientist who knows what she’s talking about when she forecasts the weather. Rodgers clearly did her research, something that’s always nice to see. But they’re also good, decent, warmhearted people worthy to be called a hero and heroine. Michael is a caring therapist, and there’s a small subplot where we see him dealing with two young men who gave up on life after having limbs amputated. Knowing that Rodgers’s characters are always unfailingly honorable, I was intrigued to see how she would explain his infidelity, if that was what it really was. While the ultimate reveal isn’t a huge surprise, it pays off in a very nice scene.
The book clocks in at 243 pages, but it’s longer than that number might lead you to believe. (For one thing, the print is minuscule.) I’ve always been impressed with the author’s ease at delivering as much story as possible in the series format, but I have to admit, for the first time I felt the strain as Rodgers tried to juggle this very complicated story in the short form. Still, with all the series romances I’ve read lately that were content to offer a bare minimum of plot and character, I was happy to have more story rather than less. While it’s a bit awkward at times, she pulls it off well overall. The mystery is a good one, with a multitude of characters and plenty of false trails. Many romantic mystery writers provide so few clues that it’s easy to tell which are relevant and which are red herrings. That isn’t the case here. It’s a clever puzzle, as the author cannily feeds the reader information in subtle ways so that we don’t even know we’ve learned something important until it pays off in the end. Early on, I guessed what part of the solution was going to be and was kind of disappointed. I should have known there was much more to suss out, as the author has plenty left up her sleeve.
I should note one thing that may trouble some readers. The characters never use protection when they have sex. I was willing to go along with it the first time, since it was understandable that these particular characters wouldn’t have any protection with them. But the second time it seemed like a strange lapse for such smart people, and the way the issue is handled is just odd. It’s a glaring misstep in an otherwise solid book, but fortunately it’s a very minor part of the story.
Last year an editor at Harlequin announced that M.J. Rodgers had decided to make a career change and would no longer be writing. This was incredibly depressing to hear, since she’s one of my favorite authors, delivering some of the most distinctive and unique stories in the genre. But if this is her last book, it’s a good one to go out on. A clever mystery, intelligent characters, and a sweet romance make Critical Affair another good read from a great author.