Whispers at Midnight
When you’re talking contemporary romance, a comparison to Linda Howard or Jennifer Crusie has become almost as overdone as likening a Regency to Georgette Heyer. I’m going to make the comparison anyway. Not only does Robards hold her own with these authors, she successfully combines elements used by them and does them better. After a somewhat shaky start due to a few too many forced snarky interactions between the hero and heroine, Whispers at Midnight began to grab my almost-wandering attention. By book’s end I realized that once I’d gotten past the uneven moments, it had completely won me over.
Carly Linton has returned to Benton, Georgia to start over. After a divorce left her with very little, her only hope is to move back into the Victorian mansion left to her by her grandmother. With the help of her friend and business partner, Sandra, Carly plans to update the house and start a bed and breakfast. Those plans are set awry on the steaming hot night she and Sandra arrive. First Carly mistakes the local sheriff for a burglar. That would be bad enough. Worse is the fact that the sheriff is Matt Converse. Matt’s the man who was her first love, the guy she went to the prom with, the guy who was her first sexual partner, and the guy who never called her again after that first time! If all of that isn’t enough to sour her arrival, getting attacked in her new home by a real intruder would be.
Initially, the suspense aspect seemed a little too familiar, and the behavior of Carly, in particular, seemed forced and over-the-top. But just when I was telling myself to begin grinning and bearing it, something happened. I don’t know if Ms. Robards took some time to get into her groove or if she needed to get a feel for her characters, but suddenly they were talking and acting like real people might. Carly realizes that yeah, Matt was a jerk in the days after her prom, but hey, he was what? Nineteen? And that was what? Twelve years ago? Young people, especially young guys, act stupidly. As soon as Carly got that, it was all good. Very good.
In the past I’ve always thought of Karen Robards as an author who is either on or off, with no in between. In Whispers at Midnight she’s definitely on (The Senator’s Wife was definitely off). The external conflict, a killer who may be after Carly, is logically drawn. Ms. Robards deftly includes enough clues as to his identity and she still had me guessing between a couple possible suspects until the book’s climactic scenes. The internal conflicts, those driven by Matt and Carly’s emotions and personal baggage, are not as dramatic as a killer on the loose. Instead they are realistic, which makes them all the more compelling.
The personal conflicts are what make this book. Matt is commitment phobic, but has every reason in the world to be so. Thankfully, none of those reasons include an evil, scheming, money-grubbing ex. Instead they revolve around the fact that he has had to be responsible for a lot of people from a very young age. And now, just as he’s getting out from under those commitments, Carly enters his life – a major dilemma. Carly’s dilemma is more subtle. She is at a point in her life where a fling just isn’t going to do it. And knowing that Matt has his own goals makes her choices that much more difficult. What’s truly nice is that the personal part of the story does not get lost in the suspense. Every aspect of the story is well-served.
In making the comparisons I did earlier in the review, I suggested that Robards has outpaced Howards and Crusie. Though I’ve loved many by both of these authors, their most recent books left me a little disappointed. Both have developed what would be called a “schtick” – and I’m not just talking about the humor in their books. Each has found a style that works for her, but each in her way has begun to wear a little thin. Jennifer Crusie has fallen victim to way too many quirks and kooks and Linda Howard’s suspense plots have suffered as she’s made a very successful effort to add humor to her books.
Karen Robards has meshed some of the best aspects of this contemporary style of writing with a solidly told mystery, dialogue that flows naturally from every page, and cast of characters who could realistically be found in any town across the country. The result is a romance that feels wholly and delightfully grown-up.