Smoke and Ashes
Smoke and Ashes is not The Perfect Book, but it’s an entertaining one and a somewhat unusual mystery.
Instead of being a murder mystery, this novel focuses on a serial arsonist. The book opens with a creepy firestarting sequence before pulling the action back several days to show what led to this moment. The heroine, Heather Sampson, has hit a true crisis point. She married her high school sweetheart, David, foregoing her own college dreams in order to support him as he established himself as a cardiologist. From the outside, it looks like she is living the dream as she stays home and has a quiet life in Missoula, Montana.
However, behind the scenes, Heather’s life has started to unravel. David has left her, in what turns out to be the first round in a terrible mindgame, and Heather is learning that her prenup may leave her on unsteady financial footing. Things aren’t all hunky-dory next door either, as widower Kevin Jensen tries to balance being there for his kids and keeping his career as a fire inspector on track. Departmental pressures make his life difficult, as do the needs of his children.
And in the midst of all this, it looks like Missoula has an arsonist on the loose. Kevin investigates and raises concerns about a suspicious fire involving the home of a local waitress. The events surrounding the fire certainly look odd, but budget constraints make it hard to investigate. Given what I’ve seen of real-life law enforcement investigations and how things get triaged, I appreciated that the author brought up issues of logistics and budget. It’s true that there are only so many resources available, departments tend to be short-staffed and there are a limited number of hours in the day. These constraints govern every investigation, but rarely do they figure in fiction.
Against this backdrop, the relationship between Heather and Kevin starts slowly. Heather helps out with Kevin’s kids and eventually the two are sounding boards of sorts for each other. Their friendship is clearly blossoming into attraction before either one of them is ready to admit it, a state of affairs I found convincing given their circumstances. In addition, since Heather is still married at the beginning of the book, there are other conflicts besides emotional issues to overcome. Add in the unsolved arson that moves ever closer to the lead characters’ own community, and you’ve got plenty of conflict.
This tale definitely drew me in, and I found myself caught up in trying to figure out who could be behind the arson. I had several theories, and the author did keep me guessing for a bit. However, while I enjoyed the book, the pacing at times felt a bit off. Because of Heather’s issues with David, I could understand why the romance moved at the very gradual pace it did. However, the suspense plot seemed to plod along before suddenly jumping into hyperdrive at the end. In addition, while the villain did get discovered, what ultimately happened with said villain seemed a bit coincidental and anti-climactic. As an aside, I also didn’t like the portrayal of Heather’s BFF, Brittany. It felt lazy and a little “Stepford Wife” stereotypical. So much more could have been done to develop that character and the friendship.
In the end, I did mostly enjoy Smoke and Ashes. A book doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable, and that’s pretty much how I would sum this one up. If you like romantic suspense that’s a little unusual, I think you’ll enjoy this one. In addition, if you are interested in romance that pushes the boundaries of what was once considered acceptable in terms of lead characters having been married, you may find this one of interest as well as the sensibilities of the hero and heroine are more modern that what I’ve seen in many romances.