More Than You Know
Meg Chittenden’s More Than You Know is more of an old-fashioned detective story than what is generally considered romantic suspense, but that’s a mark very much in its favor, since it is exceedingly well executed. Though an intelligent read, it lacked sufficient romance and passion to fully engage my emotions.
And “intelligent” is a good word to describe this intriguing whodunit set in Seattle, Washington. There, FBI agent Nick Ciacia (pronounced Cha-cha) gets a lead on the mysterious Snowman, an elusive killer he believes killed his father 23 years before. His father had been a cop on the Chicago force, and the apparent capriciousness of his off-duty killing had much to do with thirteen-year-old Nick’s eventual choice of careers. Despite years of questioning peers and informants, he’s no closer to knowing the Snowman’s identity than he ever was. Until now, that is, when an old informant slips him a name. There’s little enough solid information to go on, even with his many resources, but he starts tracking the movements of a pharmaceutical sales rep named Bart Williams, and finagles an introduction to Bart’s wife of six months, Maddy Sloane.
Maddy has some questions of her own, mostly along the lines of, “What had happened to change Bart from the charming prince who’d courted her into the cold and defensive stranger he’d become so soon after the wedding?” But she decides she’d rather find the answers from a comfortable distance, and is preparing to leave her husband. Having experienced so recently how charm can be deceiving, she’s a bit wary when Nick Ciacia approaches her in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where Bart’s late in picking her up. Nick reminds her of their introduction through a mutual friend two days before and seals the deal by recounting a conversation they shared about her favorite movie, Casablanca. Maddy’s good manners and need for a ride home to the suburbs do the rest. Nick does not tell her, of course, that he’s with the FBI; he doesn’t want to tip his hand in any way that might put the Snowman on the run.
But events have already been set into motion, and when Bart disappears, Nick and Maddy work together to figure out what is going on. What unfolds is the kind of teasing puzzle you can’t relinquish, as each new piece of the puzzle raises as many questions as it answers. This isn’t a glitzy panorama of impressive explosions, hair-raising car chases or epic heroism; Nick’s skill as an agent is revealed through his intuitive interviewing abilities and perceptiveness rather than through overly idealized acts of macho supremacy. It’s a realistic portrayal of detective work: how much of it entails simple information-gathering from wide-ranging sources, and how breakthroughs depend less on the introduction of a new fact than on the detective’s ability to perceive the less obvious ways that new fact fits into the puzzle.
Aside from the interesting trail Nick and Maddy follow, the story appeals because of its believable characters and the very human relationships they share. Nick’s Irish mother doesn’t need Nick underfoot all the time because it might “interfere with [her] love life.” I loved the glimpse of his parents’ marriage, not only the more diminutive father who had teasingly characterized his wife as “big bosoms, big butt, big heart,” but the apparent closeness between Nick’s mother and her Italian mother-in-law. Maddy’s relationship with her own parents is initially strained, but it is also dynamic. Maddy, who is no slouch in the brains department, also picks up on the inconsistencies that emerge as she and Nick let down their guards, sorting through them to discover how his real motives might differ from his stated ones. While his claims to be a private investigator in search of a man he thinks Bart may have known are pretty convincing, she’s wise enough now to question her own instincts when it comes to trusting men.
The story’s intermittent movie trivia entertains and provides a believable common ground for Nick and Maddy, the kind of shared cultural history/hobby that pulls otherwise disparate strangers together. Even the book’s title, More Than You Know, adds to the story’s unifying theme: the words that serve as a reminder that things are not always what they seem are the title of a song by Ruth Etting, whose life is depicted in Love Me or Leave Me, the 1955 movie starring Doris Day and a more-sinister-than-usual Jimmy Cagney.
Unfortunately, where this story succeeds as a mystery, it disappoints as a romance. The complex relationship that evolves between Nick and Maddy lacks the sort of irresistible chemistry and passion that drives lovers to willingly give up some of that reason and control, to feed the emotions in defiance of the intellect. In one way, it fits in well with the understated, realistic tone of the story, but it will most likely disappoint readers looking for the compelling romance implied by its categorization as “romantic suspense.”
Aside from that proviso, however, More Than You Know is both believable and entertainingly complex in its detail, and should satisfy those readers who enjoy a well-told detective story enough to overlook the fairly pallid romance.