The Hunting Grounds
I enjoyed Katee Robert’s first foray into romantic suspense, The Devil’s Daughter, earlier this year, even though I felt that the balance between the two elements wasn’t quite right and that the suspense plot worked better than the romance. I’m afraid I have similar reservations about The Hunting Grounds, which, while it is well-written and has an intriguing plot about a serial killer who is hunting and murdering his victims in national parks, suffers from somewhat uneven pacing and a lack of strong chemistry between the leads.
Seven years earlier, Maggie Gaines was a rookie with the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit partnered with Vic Sutherland, one of the unit’s most experienced and successful agents. Her first case proved to be an incredibly tough one – involving a child killer – and after a year of working on it, it broke her and she left the Bureau, burned out and feeling like a failure. At her lowest ebb, she reached out to her partner for comfort – which turned into a passionate kiss, even though she knew Vic was married and off limits.
Maggie now works as a Park Ranger at Glacier National Park in Montana. She’s good at her job and is happy with her quiet life and small circle of friends; she’s not an especially social person and likes it that way. But when she is called to the scene of a gruesome murder within Glacier, she finds herself thrust headlong back into the world she thought she had left behind seven years ago.
Vic Sutherland has been working the case of a killer who has so far murdered two victims in two different national parks. The MO in each case is the same – and is the same as the newly found victim in Montana, making three killings in nine months. The FBI has a serial killer on its hands and the lack of time between the last murder and this latest one indicates that he’s escalating and that there is likely to be another one soon. Vic arrives at Glacier and meets with the medical examiner, who confirms to him that the latest victim was hunted and ‘field dressed’ in the same gruesome way as the others. His next step is to interview the rangers who found the body – one of whom is Maggie Gaines, who, he feels sure, isn’t going to be all that pleased to see him.
Maggie is surprised to see Vic after all this time – and equally surprised to discover he’s been divorced for five years – and it doesn’t take her long to figure out that his presence signifies that they are dealing with more than a ‘simple’ case of murder. Plus, seeing him again is unsettling; they haven’t had any contact since she left the Bureau, but even so, she has never forgotten their ill-judged kiss and having him around stirs up feelings she’d thought long buried. She’s curt and off-hand with him to begin with, but they soon find their way back to something resembling their old working relationship, bouncing ideas and theories off each other and generally working as a good team.
Their focus quickly turns to a group of five twenty-something hikers who had arrived at the park earlier in the day with plans for a ten day hike. When one of the group is found dead, her body horribly mutilated by a bear, it seems that Maggie and Vic’s suspicions that the earlier killings were a ‘trial run’ for a concerted attack on that particular group of friends were well founded. While they try to find the killer and work out why those people are being targeted, a search and rescue operation gets underway to try to find the rest of the group and get them to safety before the killer can strike again.
I did enjoy the book, but it has quite a few flaws that have prevented me from rating it more highly. I like second chance romances as a rule, and in a story such as this one where there is a split focus, incorporating a relationship between people who already know each other can be an advantage because less time is needed to set it up. On the plus side, Vic and Maggie act like sensible adults; they don’t have time to engage in silly misunderstandings or mind games -they fancy each other, they’re single adults and they don’t waste time acting on their mutual attraction. But they haven’t seen or otherwise communicated with each other in seven years, and while we’re told the mutual attraction they experienced back then has never gone away, the on-the-page chemistry between them wasn’t strong enough for me to buy that they’d be talking about a long-term relationship within two or three days of reconnecting. The book ends abruptly, with hasty ILYs and with the suggestion of an HFN, which brings the deficiencies in the romance into even sharper focus.
The suspense plot is well executed and although it moves fairly slowly, that gives the author time to build a sense of menace, allowing readers to wonder who will be the next victim as we, along with Maggie and Vic, try to see the pattern and work out the killer’s motive. I didn’t mind the slower pace, but some of the PoV switches – from Maggie and Vic to the hikers and then to the odd flashback which tells us more about why they’re such a dysfunctional group of friends – interrupt the flow of the narrative, which I found frustrating on more than one occasion. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the flashback parts would have worked better in a prologue.
I’m the first person to admit that I’m not that great at working out whodunit, so I was surprised by the final reveal of the killer’s identity, and I also enjoyed Ms. Robert’s vivid descriptions of the wonderful scenery and the sheer majesty of the surroundings in which most of the book is set, which put the reader right in the middle of what sounds like one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The Hunting Grounds is the second book in the Hidden Sins series but as it’s only loosely linked to the first – Vic appeared briefly in The Devil’s Daughter as Eden Collins’ FBI partner – it can easily be read as a standalone. I’m giving it a qualified recommendation because the suspense angle is well done and held my attention sufficiently that I was eager to find out what was going on, but the romance takes a back seat, so if you prefer your romantic suspense to have a better balance between those two elements, you might want to adjust your expectations if you’re planning on picking this one up.
Buy Now: A