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TBR Challenge, October 2022 – Flirting With Danger

“Flirting With Danger” sounded like a sure-fire win from the TBR prompt standpoint. We both enjoy romantic suspense, and there are some very talented authors working in the genre. Caz and I both chose category romance titles this month. While our picks were published almost twenty years apart, they had one thing in common – the suspense was great but the romance needed work.  Hopefully, we’ll have better luck next time. In the meantime, who are some of your favorite romantic suspense authors?

Safe Passage by Loreth Anne White

I’m a big fan of Loreth Anne White’s romantic suspense titles (although she now seems to have moved to writing just “suspense” without the romance part) – and as I’d decided to read a romantic suspense novel for the flirting with danger prompt this month, I went for one of her early Harlequin titles. Safe Passage, originally published in 2004, boasts a gripping, fast-moving plot that has clearly been very well researched, and two interesting protagonists, but the romance is rushed – something I’ve complained about in other category-length romantic suspense novels – and includes some really wince-inducing cheesy dialogue that kept taking me out of the story.

But first things first; the plot of Safe Passage is compelling, one of those ripped-from-the-headlines stories that is scarily plausible. A deadly disease has attacked the US cattle industry and shows signs of being transmissible to humans and now, a plague of whitefly is making its way towards the US border, an epidemic that could devastate the farming industry, lead to widespread food shortages and have a catastrophic effect on trade and the financial stability of the country. Dutch etymologist Dr. Skye Van Rijn is one of those working round-the-clock to find a way to counter the infestation, and at last, she thinks she’s found it. No-one knows where the whitefly has come from and so far, no-one has found a natural predator to counteract it, so Skye has engineered one, adapting a beetle from Asia and breeding it in her lab at Kepplar Biological Control Systems. The project is in the final testing stage, but Skye’s boss is trying to rush the process, desperate to gain the literal fortune that’s going to be paid to whoever can find the solution to the infestation.

Scott Armstrong is an operative for Bellona Channel, an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to fighting bio-crime and bio-terrorism. A serious injury sustained on his last mission means Scott can no longer operate in the field, so his boss has assigned him what Scott thinks of as a babysitting gig – to keep an eye on Skye Van Rijn, a brilliant scientist with possible links to a worldwide terrorist organisation. Scott – in the guise of author, Scott McIntyre – is moving into the house next door to Skye’s and is carrying some stuff inside when he’s startled by an unfamiliar voice behind him; reacting instinctively, he barely stops himself throwing the knife he always keeps in his boot and finds himself face to face with the most striking woman he’s ever seen, a woman whose movements and body language clearly show her to be as adept at wielding a weapon as he is. Scott conceals his surprise when she introduces herself as Skye Van Rijn – his neighbour – and refuses to identify the strange hollowness he feels in his gut when she tells him she’s getting married the day after next.

Both protagonists are carrying a lot of emotional baggage, Skye as the result of the past she’s been running from for a decade, Scott from the deaths of his wife and child in an accident nine years before. The two of them are understandably wary of each other even as their mutual attraction is pulling them together; Scott wants to believe Skye played no part in the dissemination of the cattle plague and that her work into countering the whitefly epidemic is genuine, but there’s too much evidence – albeit circumstantial evidence – against her for him to be able to believe in her completely. And Skye has learned the hard way that the only person she can really trust is herself; she doesn’t want to be attracted to Scott and she doesn’t want to need his help. When her fiancé leaves her at the altar and she hares off on her Harley, Scott is compelled to find her and comfort her (while telling himself it’s his job to find out whatever he can about her) and when she realises she’s being followed and fears it’s her past catching up with her, it’s to Scott she turns for help while making sure to tell him as little of the truth as possible. Scott knows she’s being deliberately evasive, and insists she levels with him so he knows what he’s getting into while also knowing he can use her fear to find out what he needs to know.

Deception is a commonly used trope in romantic suspense, and sometimes it’s used for very good reason, but I realise that for some it’s a no-no regardless of circumstance. It’s not usually a problem for me, but Scott does a couple of things that didn’t sit at all well, and I really didn’t care for Skye’s ‘how dare he lie to me’ attitude once she finds out who he really is. She’s been lying to him for just as long as he’s been lying to her and two wrongs don’t make a right. The level of deception they engage in is one of the reasons the romance didn’t work for me; another is that they go from complete strangers to ILYs in about three days, and there’s so much emphasis on how Scott/Skye ‘made him/her feel things he’d/she’d never felt before’ that my eyes hurt from the rolling.

While the romance is rushed, the plot is well done with real insight into the potential effects of eco-terrorism on the world’s agriculture and food supply. Skye’s background is fascinating and the more we learn about it and what she’s been through, the easier it is to understand her trust issues and her desire for a normal life.  I did, however, have to wonder why a supposedly brilliant and intelligent woman didn’t realise her fiancé was a dodgy bastard. Scott is more of a stereotype though; devastated by grief, he has eschewed emotional involvement – until Skye comes along and something about her starts to melt his frozen heart. *eyeroll*

With fascinating storylines, a badass heroine and movie-style climax, Safe Passageis a cut above the other category romantic suspense novels I’ve read, but the limited page count doesn’t allow the author to achieve a proper balance between the romance and the suspense plot.  Read it for the story and try not to groan too much at the cheesiness of the romance.

~ Caz Owens

Grade:  B-           Sensuality:   Warm

Buy it at: Amazon

Canyon Crime Scene by Carol Ericson

Naturally, a “Flirting With Danger” prompt led me straight to romantic suspense. This month’s TBR pick was from a new-to-me author. Canyon Crime Scene is a 2022 release, so it’s only been sitting on the TBR stack for about five-six months, but if you follow my Twitter feed, you know how quickly my Harlequin habit stacks up.  This one had some plot twists that tremendously didn’t work for me, so that dimmed my enjoyment of what was otherwise a fairly solid mystery.  Also, while it’s somewhat cop-adjacent, it doesn’t feature police or special agent leads, so I liked that.

Cade Larson has come back to Los Angeles because his sister is missing. While his sister has had a troubled past, Cade loves her and he wants to make sure she is safe. His high school ex-girlfriend, Lori Del Valle, now works as a fingerprint analyst at the LAPD, so Cade reaches out to her for help. He thinks (probably correctly) that the detectives see his sister as just another drug user, but he knows she has been clean and he wants her disappearance to be taken seriously.

Lori is believably less than thrilled to see Cade turn up. Not only is Lori Latinx while Cade is white, but she also comes from a working-class home while Cade’s family owned a construction business and has always run in prominent circles. The manner in which their relationship ended in high school was traumatic for Lori at the time, and she doesn’t see him as someone she needs back in her life. As the book unfolds, we will see just why this high-school breakup was so upsetting, and without throwing in spoilers, I have to admit that while I empathized with Lori, I also disliked how both of the leads handled these events at various points. They both could benefit from lessons on boundaries and honesty with a partner.

The mystery is definitely the stronger part of this book. I enjoyed the suspense plotting in this novel quite a bit. Cade has access to his sister’s home and since the detectives don’t seem to be taking her case very seriously, he and Lori take a look around. They find a fingerprint tying her case to another disappearance, which they share with detectives. However, they also find a business card for a rather unusual sounding rehab facility.

Much of the story centers on this mysterious, New Agey rehab center. If this book was a movie, I’d expect “Hotel California” to be on the soundtrack somewhere. Lori is able to sneak into this all-women’s facility and even if some of the plot twists feel a tad unbelievable, it’s still entertaining reading. Lori’s clearly not doing everything by the book, but there’s at least some logic to how she does things, so I could the procedures slide a little.

While I found the mystery entertaining, the romance felt a little less sure-footed. Given the intensity of their prior relationship, I could believe the almost immediate chemistry between Cade and Lori. However, these two at various points in the story both keep secrets from each other that needed to be dealt with. Things move at warp speed between them and it felt like some of their issues got brushed aside rather than resolved meaningfully.

And speaking of abrupt resolution, the book also features Lori’s reasons for going into fingerprint analysis as a plot point. Her dedication to her work comes from what she saw as her brother’s unjust brush with the law. That old mystery got wrapped up rather quickly as well. Canyon Crime Scene features an interesting mystery that I enjoyed, but the characters and their relationship had a few too many rough patches for me to truly love it.

~ Lynn Spencer

Grade:      C+          Sensuality:   Warm

Buy it at: Amazon

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