Sharon Sala has written many enjoyable series romances for Silhouette, but if Dark Water is any indication of the quality of her single title releases for MIRA, I think I’ll stick to her shorter books. As far as romantic suspense novels, this one didn’t do much for me.
Twenty years ago, Sarah Jane Whitman’s father disappeared and a million dollars went missing from the bank where he worked. Everyone in Marmet, Maine, assumed he’d taken the money and run. Sarah and her mother were ostracized by the small town. Sarah’s mother eventually killed herself, and ten-year-old Sarah went to live with a family friend in New Orleans. Nothing could force her to go back, until her father’s body is found at the bottom of a lake in Marmet, where it has lain for twenty years.
Sarah returns to Maine determined to prove her father’s innocence. Naturally that’s the last thing the killer wants to hear. Tony DeMarco, a childhood friend who’s become a successful businessman, offers his protection and support. As they grow closer, the killer moves in, until both Sarah and Tony are in danger.
Dark Water was easy to read, with the author’s usual warm characters and poignant scenes. While bored doesn’t exactly describe the reading experience, the story never really grabbed me. Precisely why that was took most of the read to determine, but it finally came to me. Despite the many scenes from the perspectives of secondary characters that add nothing to the story, Dark Water is no more complex than a series romance. In fact, many of Sala’s Silhouettes, such as When You Call My Name, Shades of a Desperado, or Familiar Stranger, featured more intense romances and suspense plots than Dark Water. Sala has a series story to tell, but stretches it across an extra hundred pages, which is probably why Dark Water came across as rather, well, watered down.
The story unfolds a bit too leisurely for the suspense to build or the love story to create much emotion. Sala takes us into the killer’s point-of-view often, but the actual threats to Sarah’s life are few and far between and the killer never seems that frightening. The romance is pleasant, but a little bland. Sarah and Tony are both nice people. They like each other, they move from friends to lovers, and in the end they decide to stay together. That’s about it. I never got the impression that these were two people who couldn’t live without one another or found a great once in a lifetime love, and Sarah’s behavior at one point in the book seems plot-driven more than anything else. Compared to some of the more emotional romances Sala has delivered in the past, Sarah and Tony’s fell flat.
The mystery is one of the story’s stronger points. I liked the way Sala dropped clues and there was just enough for readers to try and figure it out. Information subtly offered early on pays off later, which is always a bonus. Although the killer isn’t a huge surprise, Sala offers enough secondary characters and potential suspects to cloud the issue. Perhaps a few too many, in fact. Some of the scenes centering on the other characters are so pointless that they seemed as though they were there only to pad the story. There’s the typical villainous gay character who wants Sarah to leave town for reasons unconnected to the crime, a subplot that receives plenty of space and goes nowhere. At one point the sheriff develops an inexplicable crush on Sarah that exists for all of three pages and then vanishes. A woman Tony was involved with in the past, who naturally is a hateful shrew, appears briefly. None of these elements are around long enough to count as subplots. They just drift through the story, forgotten as quickly as they appear. I did, however, enjoy the character of Lorett, Sarah’s adoptive aunt, who was a great addition to the story.
The main characters were a mixed bag. Sarah is a tough yet sympathetic heroine, as Sala does a good job evoking both her pain and her determination to find justice. I had no trouble identifying with her and liked her a lot. On the other hand, Tony didn’t make much sense to me. As soon as he learns that Sarah’s father’s body has been found, he flies from Chicago to Maine to be with her. Why? They weren’t real friends when they lived in Marmet. He was sixteen and she was ten when she left town. She was a little girl and he was the boy who mowed her lawn. Is that the kind of relationship that calls for him to drop everything to cross the country to be by her side? A passing mention that he credits Sarah’s father for some of his success sent me flipping back through the pages to see if I’d missed something. That might offer more of a basis for his support of Sarah, but it remained far too unclear for my tastes. Tony is such a nice, sensitive beta hero he didn’t gel with the image of a tough, high-powered businessman he’s supposed to be. He’s unfailingly heroic, but completely baffling. Why is he so drawn to a woman he hasn’t seen since she was ten?
Dark Water was a little too light to work as great romance or suspense for me. Sarah and Tony have no trouble overcoming the minor issues that might impede their romance. And oddly enough, the killer never seems to be much of a threat. Given the high drama of what occurred when Sarah was a child, nearly all the townspeople she meets are sympathetic. While the title implies a darkness to the story, it suffers instead from an overriding blandness. Sala has a mixed record at AAR, but this is her third romantic suspense novel to receive an average grade. If she’s going to continue writing these single title books, let’s hope she continues to write her series titles, where her track record is somewhat better.