Dead Silence is textbook romantic suspense in the sense that the reader more or less knows what happened (or is going to happen), but spends the book waiting for the characters to figure it all out. It’s the first book in a series, all centering around a Mississippi family with a dark secret. Well, semi-secret.
Grace Montgomery returns home to Stillwater, Mississippi, in an effort to finally put the past behind her. She’s a successful assistant DA who graduated first in her class at Georgetown, but she can’t manage to commit to her long time boyfriend. So she takes a few months off and rents the home of a recently deceased woman who was one of the few residents of Stillwater to give her the time of day. Although Grace is successful now, her family is still the target of harsh gossip in Stillwater. Years ago, Grace’s mom married Reverend Barker, a revered figure in the town. Almost no one knew Barker’s dark side, so when he mysteriously disappeared, everyone blamed Grace’s family. Though it’s been years since his disappearance, no one in Stillwater has really forgotten, and Grace’s family remains under a cloud of suspicion. Grace also has more personal demons to overcome. After her stepfather abused her, she acted out sexually, making herself available to many of the guys at school. She’s changed from the days when she carried the humiliating moniker “Grinding Gracie,” but some of the men in town think they might be able to take up right where they left off in high school.
The hero of the book is Kennedy Archer. Kennedy’s family is the exact opposite of Grace’s. They are practically local royalty. His dad owns a bank and has been mayor for years. Now that his dad is retiring, Kennedy is running to replace him. Although he’s the town’s golden boy, Kennedy’s wife (and high school sweetheart) was killed in a car accident, leaving him a widower with two young boys. Kennedy hasn’t thought seriously of dating, and is somewhat surprised by how he feels when with Grace. They meet again when some of his friends start making fun of her in a pizza place, talking about her past behavior. Kennedy tries unsuccessfully to smooth things over. Meanwhile, Grace hired Kennedy’s son Teddy to do some odd jobs around her home, but she has no idea who Teddy’s father is. Kennedy, on the other hand, knows that his son is working for Grace, although his mother, who watches his boys during the day, makes her disapproval very clear. But Kennedy thinks hanging out with Grace is good for Teddy, so he lets the arrangement continue.
Matters escalate when Grace’s half-sister Madeline (who doesn’t know the truth behind her dad’s disappearance, or his abuse of Grace) convinces Grace to search the office of a nearby garage. Maddy is convinced that the man who owns the garage is somehow involved in the crime. Grace knows that he isn’t really involved, but suspects something amiss. When they search the garage, Grace finds the reverend’s Bible – the Bible they thought they buried with him. Just as she grabs it, others notice their break-in. Grace runs but is caught by Kennedy, who grabs the Bible.
Kennedy reads the reverend’s private notes, and is sickened to discover that the reverend had an unhealthy fascination with Grace. Meanwhile, Grace figures out who Teddy’s father is. She tells him that he can no longer work for her, and Teddy is heartbroken. Kennedy convinces Grace to come along with his family on a camping trip, using the Bible as leverage. During the camping trip they become close, despite the untimely interference of Kennedy’s friend Joe. But can either of them really put the past behind them? Will they have the courage to face the town together?
This is not an uninteresting book. The writing is solid, the story suspenseful. There is real tension as Grace struggles to overcome her past, worrying constantly that someone will guess her secret. I liked that Grace had real problems to overcome, and that she rose up from an adolescence filled with disastrous mistakes to make something of herself.
I also found myself really liking Kennedy’s mother as a character, which surprised me. In the beginning, her prejudicial treatment of Grace and her over-bearing grand-mothering were cloying, but she changes as the book goes on, and when Kennedy decides that he stands with Grace, she backs him up with all her support. The only thing I didn’t really get is why a southern Republican would name her child born in the 1970s Kennedy. It seems highly unlikely to me, unless it was a family name.
Unfortunately, the book has other aspects that are less attractive. Grace and Kennedy are both problematic in different ways. I felt early on that Grace owed the town – and some of her relatives – the truth. If her step-father’s name was blackened in the process, it was no more than he deserved. And while I liked that Grace pulled herself up by her bootstraps after making some serious mistakes, I couldn’t quite fathom her anger at Kennedy. She really feels like he owes her a huge apology for how he treated her in high school, and I just didn’t see it. She had a crush on him, and idolized him a bit. He more or less ignored her. He didn’t use her sexually as many of his friends did, but he didn’t really give her the time of day. She seems to think that the fact that Kennedy’s friends treated her like crap is somehow Kennedy’s fault, and that he should have stepped in. I thought her anger was misplaced, at best.
But while I didn’t fault Kennedy for his behavior in high school, I did find his present behavior strange. During the course of the book, Kennedy comes to the startling conclusion that his best friend Joe – who was the dead reverend’s nephew, and one of the guys who slept with Grace in high school – is an ass. It amazed me that it took Kennedy so long to come to this conclusion. Joe cheated on his wife repeatedly. Joe does nothing all day…except gamble his money away. Joe is crude and obnoxious. And in all this time, Kennedy never noticed? I thought Kennedy should have told Joe what he could do with himself much earlier, and I lost respect for him very early on because of this. The last straw was when Joe intruded on Kennedy’s camping trip, but he tolerated it and allowed Joe to treat Grace like crap. It was too little, too late when Kennedy finally stood up for Grace.
This book does have some interesting ideas, though, and some of the characters might be worth following as well. I wouldn’t mind revisiting Kennedy’s mom, and maybe since Kennedy grew a spine at the end of the book, he’ll be a little more tolerable in the subsequent offerings.