In the Barren Ground
Loreth Anne White’s latest book is set in the Barren Lands, a vast swath of sparsely inhabited region in northern Canada. While I liked the unique setting and found the central mystery well-done, the romance portion of the book didn’t really work for me. In the Barren Ground is an atmospheric thriller that may please fans of thrillers and mysteries but leave romance readers wanting more.
Constable Tana Larsson is looking for a fresh start. A tragic event followed by a series of bad decisions has left her alone and pregnant at twenty-four, so a posting in Twin Rivers, population 320, seems ideal. In this remote community Tana hopes to build a home for herself and her baby. But when the corpses of Selena Apocada and Raj Sanjit are discovered in a nearby valley, their bodies savagely torn apart by a pack of wolves, Tana is the only one who suspects foul play. Her subsequent investigation will link Raj and Selena’s deaths to two other animal-related deaths in the area and pit her against a demented but cunning killer.
Bush pilot Cameron “Crash” O’Halloran has his own reasons for making Twin Rivers his home. We don’t find out what those reasons are until much later, but they require that he stay close to the more unsavory elements in Twin Rivers. This causes Tana to completely misjudge his character. Not only does she think he’s supplying booze to the teenage population in town, when Crash takes in forteen-year-old Mindy to shelter her from an abusive parent, Tana is certain that Crash is committing statutory rape. He , on the other hand, feels drawn to Tana despite her attitude toward him. So when someone poisons Tana’s dogs and skewers a deer’s eyeball to Tana’s door to warn her off the investigation, Crash vows that he will do whatever he can to help her, even at the cost of sabotaging his own cause.
Right off the bat, potential readers should know that this book contains graphic details of how Selena and Raj died and what the wolves did to their remains, so I’d suggest those who are squeamish about such things should steer clear. If you can get past the descriptions of violence, however, the book is a well-plotted thriller in which the author painstakingly sets up the scene, introduces all the major players, and lays out an appropriate amount of clues and red-herrings.
Twin Rivers is an isolated community that can only be accessed via air and – during the winter months in which our story is set – snowmobile. It relies on one satellite dish to transmit cell phone, radio, and other broadcast signals to the outside world; and a big portion of the town’s citizens are indigenous natives with their own belief systems. Into this insular world walks Tana, a rookie cop with no friends, no family, and more spunk than experience. As the events of the story unfold, you can feel Tana’s sense of isolation and a mounting dread as her investigation gets her closer and closer to a collision course with the killer. Some of the scenes set in the snowy wilderness will make you never want to go camping or even go outside at night again.
The romance between Crash and Tana is the book’s weak spot. Because so much of it is focused on Tana’s investigation, Crash doesn’t get any significant screen time until 100 pages into the book. And even then, Tana remains convinced that Crash is a child molester for another seventy-five pages. Since Crash is the hero and so obviously not the monster Tana makes him out to be, this makes Tana seem a little dense. Furthermore, when she finally realizes her mistake, it isn’t because of any grand epiphany or innate intuition. It is because he told her so. Knowing that there is a killer on the loose, Crash decides that the only way to get Tana to trust him enough to allow him to assist her with the investigation is to tell her about his past. So he does, and just like that, Tana is fighting an attraction to a man she loathed just a couple of days ago. I found this sudden change of heart not at all believable. And although this may be a personal preference more than anything else, in romances, I prefer my heroine to be astute enough to figure out that the hero is a good man without him having to spill his guts.
In the Barren Ground has the distinction of being one of the few romances I’ve read in which the hero and the heroine’s relationship remains unconsummated. Yes, you heard me. Although Tana and Crash spends a not insignificant amount of time mentally lusting after each other, by the end of the book their relationship is really just starting out. Tana’s childhood was spent dealing with a drunken, promiscuous mother and a neglectful father. Prior to coming to Twin Rivers, she’s made quite a few mistakes with men and is naturally leery of getting into a relationship so soon. Crash also has his own baggage to carry. So taking things slow makes sense for these two character but may frustrate readers who are looking for a more concrete resolution to their romance.
Overall, this was an enjoyable if uneven read. Other than the murder investigation and the romance, there is a subplot involving a diamond smuggling syndicate that doesn’t really go anywhere, and I kind of wish that the author hadn’t relied on the oft-used “demented killer” trope. Crash’s secret past also seems a bit over-the-top. I mean, seriously, how much misfortune can befall one man? Still, some parts of the book are truly creepy and the final climactic showdown between Tana and the killer sent shivers down my spine. If you are a fan of suspenseful thrillers set in remote locations, you may want to give In the Barren Ground a try.