Fatal Mistake is a great example of why this particular genre is called romantic suspense, as opposed to suspenseful romance. The plot, packed with tension and procedural detail, takes center stage with a love story and a touch of faith threading their ways around the action.
When the story opens, Tara Parrish has broken into the pump house behind her Aunt June’s home in rural Virginia to investigate a water problem but discovers a storehouse of documents, explosives and maps. The evidence convinces her she has found the bomb-making materials of the lunatic Lone Wolf Bomber. More frightening is that she realizes this may be the workshop of her childhood friend Oren Keeler who has been living on June’s property for over a year. The pump house has only one exit, and Oren has arrived home unexpectedly and is heading up the drive. In panic she considers her options and calls the FBI Lone Wolf hotline.
Special Agent Cal Riggens takes her call and, for the next thirty terrifying minutes, leads Tara through the actions she can take to protect herself while he boards a helicopter and rushes to her side. Cal is eager to reach Tara, who is the first person able to provide an identity and detailed information about the monster he has been hunting. He arrives on the scene to be confronted with a hard choice – chase Oren and possibly capture him, or save Tara whom Oren has shot in the gut. Cal makes his choice to stay with Tara and relies on his FBI team to follow and track down the bomber.
Thus begins a rollercoaster ride of action and detection. After her traumatic experience, Tara’s memory is foggy, and at the hospital, Cal urges her to go to Washington DC so his team can help her remember more about what happened at the pump house. But Tara spies Oren skulking in the hall and, fearing for her life, she flees. For months Tara moves across the country staying just steps ahead of Oren’s pursuit, not realizing that in every town she leaves, he kills someone she’s met. Cal finally tracks Tara down in Oregon, and more deaths there convince Tara to stop running and work with Cal and his team.
The chase for the killer comes straight out of today’s headlines. Oren has been radicalized to ISIS philosophy and kills women unfaithful to the ISIS ideal. Tara and Cal must face hostage situations, ‘necklace’ bombs, and the thwarted love that motivates the killer. Little by little Tara and Cal’s team move closer to Oren until he maneuvers the situation so that the two people Tara loves most are put in mortal danger.
Amidst all the controlled chaos and action, there is no overt description of the violence involved, but each character’s reaction to the violence they confront provides plenty of emotional punch. Fatal Mistake encompasses not only the search for the killer, but also the love story between Tara and Cal as well as their spiritual journey. At first, Tara finds Cal to be bossy, overbearing, and controlling, all characteristics which remind Tara of her ex-fiancé. As an FBI professional, Cal realizes that his attraction to Tara distracts him from his job and endangers those working with him. By the end of the story, each has come to appreciate the other on many levels which will lead to the happily-ever-after ending.
The inspirational theme is trust in God and asking His guidance before acting. Both Cal and Tara have become disconnected from divine guidance, and one of the things that draws them together is learning from each other how to recognize uncontrollable situations and to “Let go and let God”. Neither has completed that journey by the end of the book, but the reader is convinced that they will continue to practice letting go through prayer and attention to the divine messages around them.
In inspirational romantic suspense, the way the author balances all three elements is important, and I was disappointed with the balance here. Because this is the first book of a new series which focuses on the six-member FBI Critical Incident Response Team, Ms. Sleeman has chosen to spend many words introducing each team member and explaining the procedures and tools they’re using to catch the bomber. Every test, computer database, and decision point is described for the layman and set in context. This level of detail, while certainly interesting and well-researched, leaves little time for the other two elements. Cal and Tara are separated for whole chapters while Cal is following a lead. Group scenes require attention to group dynamics which breaks the rhythm of both the love story and spiritual journey and keeps the focus firmly on the suspense.
Another disconcerting element is Cal’s coping behavior. Haunted by a child’s death during his last mission, he acts out his self-blame by punching hard surfaces with his fists until they bleed. This behavior is what psychologists call self-harm, an indication of deep psychological trauma. Cal’s continued use of this coping method throughout the novel made him unattractive as a hero in spite of his competence in his job, his care for Tara, and his commitment to service. He seemed to need good counseling which he was not getting while chasing the serial killer. The behavior made me doubt that he’d make a loving partner for Tara in the long-run.
The suspense plot could stand alone without the romance or the faith element, and nearly does. If you like a good FBI procedural and lots of action, Fatal Mistake is the book for you. It’s a terrific sweet contemporary suspense novel, but light on the romance and the inspiration. Fans of Ms. Sleeman will certainly enjoy it; romance readers reading the author for the first time may be disappointed.