I enjoyed Darlene Scalera’s first Harlequin Intrigue, Unmarked Man, for its atypical characters and distinctive writing style. Her latest gathers an even more eclectic group of personalities, and the quirky cast and a stronger mystery plot made for another entertaining read.
Straight Silver is the first in a new Harlequin Intrigue promotion called Lipstick Ltd., detective stories written in first-person featuring “sexy, sassy sleuths.” In this case, the heroine is a five-foot-eleven-inch former stripper with “crayon red hair.” As she explains, “Baptized Silver LeGrande, I was born with a stripper’s name and a body that past puberty clinched my destiny.” She’s now a 31-year-old community college student studying accounting – something of a challenge for a dyslexic – and on the side she’s a limo driver to pay the bills. A few years earlier she was on the verge of becoming an alcoholic. She quit, cold turkey, by wearing a rubber band on her wrist. She still snaps it when she gets the urge to drink, and on bad days can snap herself black-and-blue. Needless to say, Silver is not your usual romance heroine.
As the story opens, Silver learns that Della Devine, an old friend and colleague from her former life, was murdered, strangled with her own G-string. Silver was Della’s emergency contact, though they hadn’t spoken for months. Feeling guilty that she wasn’t there when the other woman needed her, Silver sets out in search of answers to her friend’s death. Along the way, she crosses paths more than once with Detective Alexi Serras, a Memphis cop with Greek good looks and a questionable reputation. He may be an invaluable ally when her investigation becomes more and more dangerous and others connected to the case start to turn up dead.
The book is written in a style and tone that’s more like a mainstream mystery than a romance novel, or even romantic suspense. It’s very much plot-driven (although in a way that doesn’t forget the characters), with about as much of a romantic element as you’d expect in a mystery or detective novel. Silver and Serras have good chemistry and a nice flirtatious relationship that I could see leading somewhere down the road, but if you’re looking for a book that delivers deep emotions and a full-fledged love story, this isn’t it. The ending feels more like a promising beginning for them than a romance novel happily ever after.
The lack of an outright love story didn’t bother me in the least, though, because this is still a fast, very fun read. Scalera has a distinct voice that really works well in the first-person style. While she occasionally tries too hard to be clever, she hits far more than she misses. The narrative is light and snappy, and Silver is a wry narrator with plenty of good lines. (Silver on a case of nerves: “I held my hands out in front of me. They trembled like a virgin’s thighs.”)
I have a fondness for unconventional characters, and Silver fits the bill. She may not have book smarts, but she certainly has the street smarts and life experience to make up for it. She’s a great heroine, strong and mouthy, but also very human and sympathetic. Even though this isn’t the kind of story that delivers deep character development, Silver is well-rounded in a way many romance heroines aren’t. We learn a lot of little interesting details about her. For instance, in addition to the ones mentioned in the summary above, she bakes as a way of dealing with stress, something she has occasion to do more than once.
She’s surrounded by a vivid cast of secondary characters. Some are likable, some are villainous and some remain mysterious. They’re all distinctive, quirky individuals deftly brought to life by the author. As in Unmarked Man, the characters are earthier, more rough-edged people than are usually seen as main characters in the sanitized world of series romance. They’re more than familiar with the harsh, shady side of the world and are at home there. A few might tip over into caricature, but in their own exaggerated way, they, like the world they inhabit, felt quite real to me. My favorite paragraph in the book is one where Silver details her failed marriage to a golf pro. She explains it in a simple and straightforward way, unsentimental but with an undertone of sadness and regret. The moment struck me as more realistic and believably human than I often see in a series book, and was that much more effective and poignant for it.
Straight Silver is an entertaining mystery that should appeal to readers who like crime fiction starring smart, strong female protagonists. It’s a solid puzzle, with a fast-moving plot that strikes a good balance between the story’s snappy style and the effectively serious moments. It’s neither too dark nor too fluffy, but just about right. With engaging characters, an intriguing mystery and an offbeat heroine, it’s a very fun read.