Amnesia plots aren’t the hot button for me that they are for many romance readers. Yes, it is a huge cliché that is seldom done well and could stand to be used a lot less often than it is. But I’ve read too many books where the author manages to build a good story around the plot device to completely dismiss it. Emergency Contact is now one of them. It has the usual amnesiac heroine, but Susan Peterson’s edgy political thriller is far from typical. If only they were all this good.
Haunted by a case that went terribly wrong, psychiatrist Ryan Donovan left Boston to work at the Half Moon Research Center in Half Moon, Iowa. The locals were nervous about what exactly went on at the center, but Ryan knew the neuropsychiatric research they were conducting was hardly sinister.
Then comes the day the naked woman steps out of a cornfield onto a local farm. Her clothes aren’t the only things she’s missing. She knows her name is Tess, but not how she came to be there or anything else about herself. The sheriff is suspicious of her story, especially when a wrecked car with a dead body inside is found nearby. Ryan feels duty bound to help her. It soon becomes clear she needs it, when two men try to take her back by force. After they fail, a far more powerful foe steps in. Someone wants Tess back at any cost for a nefarious purpose, and the secret research being conducted at the center may be involved. With no one else to turn to, Ryan may be the only person who can save her from a deadly conspiracy.
The back cover reveals more, a little too much in my opinion, so I won’t go into more depth about the plot. It’s probably safe to say that, as the picture of the Capitol on the front cover illustrates, politics are involved. I’m always up for political intrigue or a psychological thriller, and this is a great one on both counts. Tense, edgy and gripping, this is romantic suspense that delivers.
Earlier this year, I reviewed the author’s first Harlequin Intrigue, Concealed Weapon. The writing was strong, but the story was not. This one is light years better. Her writing is still sharp, but the story is more dramatic and engrossing. It’s a series suspense book that actually generates some real suspense. At times Peterson portrays her characters’ desperation so vividly or creates such a tense situation that it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a series book where I could feel the tension climbing into my shoulders while I read and I had to set the book down to catch my breath once the scene was over. That’s what happened here.
The author knows how to build a scene. More importantly, she seems to understand that generating suspense isn’t just having people shoot at the characters or say scary things to them. It’s in high-stakes moments, and the possibility that something bad is about to, or will, or could happen. She milks those moments for all they’re worth. The plot is relatively straightforward. Once it reveals itself, it’s pretty clear where it’s going. That the story remains as suspenseful as it is says a great deal about the author’s skill.
This is very much a suspense novel, so the romance has to unfold in a very short time frame and is not the dominant focus of the plot. Yet Peterson still delivers a nice love story that works better than it perhaps should. Yes, it is fast, but there’s just enough tender moments and poignant scenes to make it effective. By the time the story arrived at its sweet ending, I was able to buy into their relationship.
The plot doesn’t allow for the deepest character development, but the author makes the most of the space she has by using their actions to show who they are. Tess is tough and plucky, never a helpless victim. She displays ingenuity at all the right moments. What’s particularly nice is that the story isn’t just about Ryan saving her over and over again, and she gets to return the favor at least once. Although there was one moment in a particularly anxious situation early on where Ryan needed to be knocked upside the head, he acquits himself nicely from then on.
The opening chapters are solid, but not as absorbing as the story later becomes; the book doesn’t really kick into high gear until about four chapters in, though it doesn’t let up after that point. There are little niggles, like an escape that doesn’t seem entirely plausible despite the author’s best efforts to make it so, among other things. (Because politics are involved, I should probably mention that readers whose politics lean more to the ultraconservative far right may have more of a problem with some aspects of the story than I did.)
Emergency Contact is the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year and the most entertaining series romantic suspense I’ve read in a long time. I even love the cover. It’s sharply written, genuinely suspenseful and once it gets going, an engrossing read. When I find myself saying, “I love this book!” several times in the course of reading it, it deserves no less than keeper status.