Susan Petersen wrote the last series romance I gave DIK status, Emergency Contact, and the best of Harlequin Intrigue’s Eclipse gothic romances to date, Midnight Island Sanctuary. I approached her latest, Primary Suspect, with high hopes that it would break both my series romance and Eclipse slump. While it has some good points, it suffers from too many flaws to be a success.
In the aftermath of a rock-climbing accident, Michael Emerson begins to suffer from debilitating headaches and blackouts. Soon thereafter, women he once dated start to turn up dead, the latest nailed to his front door with a ski pole, and Michael becomes the prime suspect in the murders. To escape the unwavering attention of the main detective on the case, he heads to his family’s vacation home at the Cloudspin Lodge in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
Kylie McKee’s father was the caretaker at Cloudspin for years. Now, following his sudden death, she returns to the lodge to collect his belongings. On the drive there, she nearly runs over Michael when he skis in front of her car. She knew him when they were younger, though he was one of the rich vacationers and she merely the caretaker’s daughter. She also knows he’s suspected of being the Manhattan Slasher. She doesn’t want to believe it, but when a maid is found stabbed to death shortly after they reach the lodge, it becomes clear Michael hasn’t left his troubles behind in New York.
The premise is a solid one for a gothic plot and the setting is used well, especially when a storm traps the characters at the lodge with the killer among them. The story’s strongest elements are the gothic aspects Peterson delivers. There are some suitably eerie touches and creepy scenes, as Kylie begins to see the ghost of a young girl who died at the resort, which no one else seems to see. These moments are nicely unsettling. There’s also a sharpness to Peterson’s writing that I particularly enjoy. In a time when the writing in so many series romances seems bland, lifeless and/or sketchy, Peterson’s prose is strong and smooth. She has an engaging style that instantly drew me into the story and kept me turning the pages straight through to the end. This was a fast, easy read.
However, a number of weaknesses prevent it from becoming more than a modest diversion. First and foremost, the mystery is far too predictable. I guessed the killer’s identity and motive very early on, but was fully prepared to be proved wrong. At the very least, it could still play out in an interesting way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The author doesn’t even try to throw in any red herrings or misdirection. Instead, the plot plods along, building a case against an obvious suspect so that it’s clear who it must be long before the ending comes. All that’s left for readers is the long wait for the characters to reach the conclusion we already have. Their inability to put together the obvious clues becomes frustrating and makes them look kind of dim.
It might not matter as much if the romance was stronger. It’s okay, but not likely to set a reader’s heart aflutter. The story takes place in only a few days, and the main focus is on the suspense plot, so neither the characters nor their relationship are developed much beyond the surface. The police detective’s unwavering determination to pin the murders on Michael was also an annoying contrivance. It really didn’t make much sense that the police wouldn’t even consider the possibility that anyone else might be responsible. It seemed unlikely that someone already considered the police’s prime suspect would stake the latest body to his own front door, something that might have raised a few questions. But then, the detective is really just a one-note antagonist there solely to generate tension rather than someone whose actions are supposed to make any rational sense.
Peterson is turning out to be quite a hit-or-miss author. With five romantic suspense releases to date, she’s written two that I really liked and two that I really didn’t. Primary Suspect falls in between. It’s a fast read with some enjoyable moments, but it certainly could have been better overall.