Rachel Lee’s latest novel Under Suspicion is mislabeled as romance. In truth, it is an extremely suspenseful mystery accompanied by a flat, boring romance, which is acted out by a flat and boring hero and heroine. Luckily the secondary characters are all that the leading couple are not – interesting, amusing, and colorful – which saves this romantically-unsatisfying read by offsetting the poor romance with humorous and intellectually stimulating mystery aspects.
Anna Lundgren is a museum curator who has just unveiled her first big exhibit, which happens to be a huge success, thanks to her ideas and hard work. The exhibit displays Mayan artifacts, including a jade dagger which is supposedly cursed by the jaguar god – a curse that is rumored to have caused the death of Anna’s father, and, according to legend, a curse that will take its revenge “unto the second generation.” When a security guard from the museum turns up dead the day after the exhibit opens, it begins to look as if the curse may be true. But when the jade dagger is stolen, despite impossibly tight security, Anna begins to fear that someone wants to make the curse come true – unto the second generation.
Homicide Detective Gil Garcia has enough on his hands when he shows up for a routine investigation of an apparent overdose in his St. Petersburg jurisdiction. His teenage daughter is sneaking out behind his back to see her no-good boyfriend, and his ex-wife is a pain in the butt. He doesn’t have time for a huge investigation, but that’s just what unfolds.
Despite the run of the mill appearance of the OD, Gil has a hunch – quickly borne out by evidence – that the man was murdered. What’s more, it looks like part of a larger crime, the theft of a priceless Mayan artifact. In short order, Gil finds himself involuntarily teamed with an eccentric detective from Tampa, one who thinks he’s Hercule Poirot (this week, at least) by the name of Clarence Tebbins. Luckily, Tebbins has the brains and humor to carry it off, and his wit matches Gil’s intuition to form a formidable alliance. But will it be enough to protect Anna?
Ms. Lee has a gift for building tension and suspense to terrific levels – and sustaining those levels, which can be even trickier. Everyone is a suspect, even Anna, and although the reader knows she innocent, the proof against her is mounting, until she fears the only way Gil and Tebbins will be convinced of her innocence is if the murder succeeds in enacting the curse upon her. My only complaint in the mystery department – which is otherwise expertly executed – is that toward the end, a single piece of evidence is introduced against Anna, and never explained. An oversight, but not one that ruins the nail-biting effect of the supreme suspense. If this were pure suspense, this book would rate in the B+/A- range.
Unfortunately, the romance is not up to that level. In fact, if I were to grade this book purely on romance, it would rate in the D range. Anna is boring, and Gil is only marginally more interesting. Their chemistry is thus limited by the fact that it’s hard to find either of them interesting enough to care about. You know that old cliché where the hero and heroine have to work together, and at least one of them decides that if they’re going to get anything done, they should hop into bed together and get it over with, get it out of their systems, so that they can get real work done? Well, Gil and Anna never had this thought – but I did. For the first time I can remember, I really wished they would “get it over with” and get on to the interesting part of the story – the mystery.
This problem is really exacerbated by the fact that the secondary characters – specifically Tebbins, and Anna’s identical twin Nancy – are vastly more interesting. Both are colorful and fun. Nancy in particular serves to portray by contrast all that her sister is not. She’s witty, fun-loving, and brash, with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Next to her, it’s uncomfortably easy to see Anna for the dull doormat that she really is. Nancy believes in the magic of life, and embraces it. Anna is extremely uncomfortable with anything that science can’t explain. Nancy has hobbies (albeit geeky ones – Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings – with which she’s completely happy), a relationship (or ex-relationship, since her girlfriend Peggy just left her), and a life. Anna has a job. End of story.
While Gil is less overshadowed by Tebbins and his eccentricities and active imagination, he is still shown up. During one particularly exemplary conversation, Tebbins answers the phone, “It’s Tebbins. I’m sitting here sipping cognac and thinking over my day.” To which Gil responds, “I’m sitting here swigging a diet soft drink in my recliner, waiting for my daughter to get out of the shower so I can set down some new rules about her boyfriend.” It’s a humorous exchange, but also a telling one. While Tebbins is silly and pretentious, he knows it, and makes no bones about it. On the other hand, Gil is completely uncomplex. He’s sympathetic in that he cares about his family and has intuitions that generally turn out to be correct. But next to his temporary partner, he comes off as pretty dull, except for the occasional witty comment. In addition, his attraction to the boring heroine makes you wonder just what’s wrong with him, anyway.
Over all, this book was hard to rate. Mystery lovers will enjoy it immensely, but anyone looking for a good romance will be sorely disappointed. So, I recommend it, but not to all. I will read Ms. Lee’s work again, and gladly. But next time I will know what to expect.