Unspeakable is book four in Elisabeth Naughton’s Deadly Secrets series featuring the adoptive McClane siblings, and although I haven’t read the other books, it works pretty well as a standalone. There are, of course, some recurring characters and past events referred to, but the author gives enough information about them to satisfy the newbie without getting bogged down in too much extraneous detail. I did, however, read a few reviews of the other books after I’d read this one, and discovered that Unspeakable’s hero – Russell (Rusty) McClane – was a bit of an arsehole in the others, so I did miss out on that whole bad-boy-redeemed thing. On the plus side, however, not knowing much about him meant that the first chapters of the book, where the author paints him as something of a questionable character, kept me guessing for a while – even though it was obvious he was the hero the minute the heroine started lusting after him.
Rusty has always thought of himself as the black sheep of the family, the really awful things he’d done in the past making feel as though he doesn’t belong among this group of honest, good-hearted people who love him. He can normally handle family parties, but this particular day he just wants to be somewhere else, to avoid the questions about the bandages on his hands and the lies he’ll have to tell in response, hating himself for the deception and cringing at the obvious pride his parents take in him. In the middle of the party, however, things look set to come crashing down around his ears when two detectives show up at the McClane house intent on asking Rusty some questions about a young girl last seen at the local strip club where she’d worked – and where she’d been seen in Rusty’s company.
Ex-cop-turned-investigator Harper Blake knows a bad boy when she sees one, and Russell McClane most definitely pings her evil receptors. Her boss, lawyer Andrew Renwick, is an old friend of the McClane family, and he’s been asked to do a little digging around on Rusty’s behalf, to see what the police might be using to build a case against him in case Rusty is charged and Renwick has to mount a defence. Renwick tells Harper that at least eight girls working at strip joints in the area have disappeared over the past few weeks and months, and that McClane is known to have visited the same places, enquiring about their youngest employees. Harper can’t put her finger on it, but she knows immediately that something is off about McClane. Is he just some sicko bastard who preys on teenaged girls, or is something else going on? Either way, she’s determined to find out.
The author sets up the suspense plot well, keeping readers guessing as to Rusty’s true motivations until the story is well underway. Add in the fact that there’s someone out there with a grudge against the McClanes trying to set him up, an unexpected betrayal from close to home for Harper, and that what she and Rusty eventually stumble into is more dangerously gruesome than either of them had suspected, and you’ve got the ingredients for a pretty compelling story of suspense.
Unfortunately, however, while the suspense works, the novel is rather let down by the romantic part of the plot, because the relationship that springs up between Harper and Rusty is based primarily on lust and there isn’t much romantic about it. They hardly exchange more than a sentence or two until around half-way through the book, and then start making out in the middle of a swanky club when they’re supposed to be looking for a possible victim of a sex trafficking ring and are likely surrounded by lots of big men with guns! I get that danger can be a turn on, but – just nope. I was also a bit squicked by the fact that Harper starts lusting after Rusty while she believes him to be guilty of kidnapping, abusing and maybe even murdering teenage girls.
I liked Rusty and understood why he was driven to follow the path he did, especially after we find out the truth about his past and the piece of unadulterated filth who was his stepfather. I also appreciated why Harper’s past – she was dismissed from the police force because some sleazebags made trumped-up accusations of sexual harassment against her – had hardened her and made her reluctant to trust. Still, that didn’t really excuse the way she jeopardises their fledgling relationship by keeping a pretty big secret from Rusty – she knows it’s a bad idea but she does it anyway, and, of course, it blows up in her face near the end.
Neither character really stood out for me and there were times the plot relied on coincidence a little more often than I’d have liked; but for all that, I was invested enough in it to want to know how things would pan out. The author builds the dramatic tension skilfully and creates a real sense of peril for our heroes; the action scenes are well written and I was impressed with the final twist in the tale. The suspense plot works better than the romance, but Unspeakable kept me reading in spite of its flaws, so I’m giving it a cautious recommendation.