Desert Isle Keeper
The Night in Question
Harper Allen became an auto-buy author for me with her first two books, the remarkable 1930s Hollywood time-travel romance The Man That Got Away and the dazzling jewel-thief-and-bounty-hunter caper Twice Tempted. Since then, she’s written a string of solid B-level reads, noteworthy for their strong, unusual heroines and emotional love stories. At first The Night in Question seemed to be another one, good but not extraordinary. Four months later, though, I’m still thinking about it and I find myself rereading passages and admiring just how good it is. Considering I have trouble remembering most books I read these days within a day after finishing them, I had to take this one to the Desert Isle. It’s not perfect, but it is a keeper.
Julia Tennant has just been released on a technicality after spending two years in prison for the murder of her husband. Hardened and bitter, she has only one goal: to regain the daughter she lost after her conviction. (Don’t worry, kid-phobic readers. The little girl only appears in a few brief scenes and is barely a presence in the book.) FBI Agent Max Ross is just as determined that she never see her child again. He was responsible for putting the woman known as The Porcelain Doll Bomber behind bars and as far as he’s concerned she belongs there. Wherever Julia turns, she finds Max standing in her way. Max remains Julia’s foe until he realizes something – in one great scene – that convinces him Julia couldn’t have had anything to do with her husband’s murder. He then joins forces with her to prove her innocence and find the person responsible for her husband’s death, most likely someone in her own family.
The mystery isn’t much of one; I guessed who the killer was before I even started reading just by scanning the cast of characters in the front of the book. It doesn’t matter. This is less a romantic suspense novel in the conventional sense than it is a character-based contemporary with a suspense subplot. The focus is on Julia, a woman who has survived a nightmare and also has to learn to forgive herself for one bad choice she made in the past, and Max, a man who’s barely lived since the death of his wife. This is a deeply emotional read with two memorable and unique characters. This is particularly true with the heroine, as Allen doesn’t shy away from portraying the hell Julia went through in prison and how the experience lingers. Max initially seems so cold and ruthless that it doesn’t seem possible that the author will make your heart ache for him. Allen pulls it off.
That isn’t to say the author doesn’t have some surprises up her sleeve on the suspense front. Even with the killer pegged from the start, I enjoyed the way the mystery unfolded, like an onion being peeled, with layers slowly being revealed about the secondary characters. In at least one instance, Allen does what good mystery writers should: she rewards the reader for paying attention. Late in the book something is revealed that sent me flipping back through the pages to an earlier scene to see if the author cheated. She didn’t. The beauty of this scene is that it plays perfectly straight-forward, giving little indication that it’s anything other than what it appears to be on the surface. Reading it back with what the reader now knows, it’s easy to see the clues that should have been so obvious, and weren’t.
There’s much to recommend about The Night in Question: a lovemaking scene that’s built on emotion instead of lust, the sympathetic and unstereotypical portrayal of gay characters, the sheer number of memorable moments and powerful scenes. The book has its share of conventions – an FBI agent hero, a child, a heroine who was a socialite – but it’s a good example of what an author can do within the constraints of the current series romance environment when she’s willing to push the boundaries.
As mentioned earlier, the book is not quite perfect. A few details are far-fetched, and the pace has a tendency to drag. This is particularly clear in an action scene in the middle of the book, where shorter paragraphs and sentences would heighten the suspense. Instead the scene seems to go on forever. The book also won’t appeal to everyone. Until the happy ending, the book is unceasingly dark, without any lightness or humor. On the other hand, this only makes the closing moments that much more poignant and sweet. For me, the weaknesses were easy to overlook because they didn’t detract from the core of the story about two deeply wounded people who come together and slowly begin to heal each other and move on. This is a gut-wrenching read, and more than one moment had this normally dry-eyed reader on the verge of tears, particularly in the ending. In a year when I didn’t read any other 2002 release I would call a keeper, this flawed yet powerful book is, without question, deserving of the title.