It’s very challenging to write a category novel with serious depth to it since the rules of the format are strict and the page allotment low. Challenges notwithstanding, several authors, including Virginia Kantra, manage to do a wonderful job of bringing their series titles to life. While Kantra’s latest entry falls a touch flat, she remains an author who knows how to write in this sub-genre; Guilty Secrets tells an interesting story.
Joe Reilly is a reporter recently returned from the Middle East. After an extended period spent recovering from injuries, Reilly begins to work on his latest article, a profile of Nell Dolan, the so called Angel of Ark Street. Reilly is cynical in his outlook and doubts that he will find Dolan to be as good as they say, but he tries to approach his assignment with an open mind.
Nell, for her part, is dedicated to her work at the Ark Street Free Clinic. The people she serves need her help and she is glad to give it to them. Even though Nell is attracted to Joe, she’s nervous around the handsome reporter since she has secrets she does not wish him to uncover.
As Joe realizes his attraction to Nell, he finds himself spending more and more time around her. While Nell’s developing feelings for Joe confuse her, she is certain that having a reporter around is not something she can handle – especially considering the mysterious goings-on at the clinic that she’s trying to keep quiet. Her withdrawal from Joe, however, only causes the reporter to become ever more curious.
The romance between Joe and Nell is rather touching and becomes even more so as all of their respective secrets are revealed. Seeing a couple whose flaws and baggage are real rather than imagined makes this novel more powerful than most. In addition, the author effectively portrays Joe and Nell as real people, rather than merely exploiting the problems and demons that they face.
Kantra also does a good job of evoking her setting. As I read, I could visualize Nell’s clinic and the people who visited there. It’s obvious that the author researched her setting and put a lot of work into learning what it would be like to work at or be a patient in an urban clinic, giving Nell and Joe’s story an added authenticity.
However, the romance between Joe and Nell suffers from some rather eye-rolling flaws. For me, the major problem lies in the characterization of Nell as the perfect martyr/doormat heroine. She rescues every stray she can find and would do anything to protect those she loves – even things that are amazingly misguided. Nell often seems to be so sympathetic to the tortured and damaged souls of the world that she is capable of blinding herself to their flaws in an eerily co-dependent fashion – not a helpful quality if you are running a free clinic in a rough neighborhood. It is also disturbing to see because Nell, as the most sympathetic of the book’s female characters, is something of a model woman. Acting as a doormat/co-dependent is not a model of behavior I would praise or elevate in anyone.
My other problem with this novel lies in the subplot involving the police. It is difficult to describe this fully without spoiling the plot for others, so I will only say that the cops here seem awfully quick to level suspicions on people without appearing to conduct much of an investigation. I cannot imagine a real police force doing this, and the way in which it is handled kept pulling me out of the story.
In spite of the flaws, Guilty Secrets earns a qualified recommendation. If you cannot take doormat heroines, however, this would probably not be the book for you and the level of co-dependency shown here can certainly be somewhat disturbing. Still, if you can get past the weaker moments, this novel does tell a compelling story and is certainly worth a try.