Emily & the Stranger

Gabriel Hawk's Lady

Her Secret Weapon

In the Arms of a Hero

Lone Wolf's Lady

 
After Dark by Beverly Barton
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6693-7
***
Every so often, I read a book that fails to come alive for me but I can't put my finger on the reason. If I'm reading solely for my own enjoyment, I just put the book aside, shrug, and say, "Not for me." If I'm reviewing the book, I have a responsibility to readers to delve deeper and figure out what isn't working. Maybe what bothers me will be unimportant to other readers, but they deserve a reason for my disinterest.

In After Dark the stumbling block is the milieu in which the action is set. Noble's Crossing is a small town in Alabama, apparently composed of two residential areas. There is Magnolia Avenue where the rich folk live, on the east side of the Chickasaw River, and there are the poor white trailer parks on the west side of the Chickasaw River. Period. There are no new sub-divisions and no African-Americans at all.

Being born on the wrong side of the Chickasaw River dooms you to being white trash all your life. But never mind, no matter which side of the river you were born on, you act pretty much the same. You have secrets, you lie, you cheat on your spouse or lover, and you use language that wouldn't have been tolerated in the Arkansas where I grew up. Most importantly, you jump whenever the town matriarch, Edith Graham Ware, snaps her fingers. Maybe this sort of community does exist in rural Alabama in the 21st century, but I wasn't convinced.

Johnny Mack Cahill is poor white trash from the wrong side of the river, but he left town fifteen years ago, vowing never to return. At 21, he was the baddest of the trailer park bad boys. Once out of Alabama, however, he found a mentor who straightened him out and sent him through college. Johnny Mack proved to have the Midas touch and, at 36, is now a multimillionaire.

What brings Johnny Mack back to Noble's Crossing is an anonymous note: "Your son needs you. Come home." Enclosed with the note is a news article which says that Lane Noble Graham is suspected of killing her ex-husband and that her 14-year-old son witnessed the crime but is suffering from traumatic amnesia. A photo of Lane's son is enclosed, and Johnny Mack is taken aback by the resemblance to himself.

One thing Johnny Mack is sure of - if that's his son, Lane isn't the boy's mother. Lane Noble was one of the few Magnolia Street women Johnny Mack didn't sleep with even though - at age 18 - Lane would have if he'd asked. He never asked because he was half in love with her and 100% sure she was too good for the likes of Johnny Mack.

Lane isn't John William Graham's birth mother, but she is his mother in every other way that counts. Broken-hearted when Johnny Mack Cahill left Noble's Crossing without her, when Lane found out that one of his trailer park lovers was pregnant with his child, she convinced Kent Graham that the baby was his just so she could adopt the baby. Her marriage to Kent was never happy, but when he discovered that Will wasn't his, Kent became so abusive that Lane divorced him.

Now Lane is suspected of killing Kent but - in a classic mystery convention - so are half of Noble's Crossing, including her son, Will. Johnny Mack finds himself in the position of trying to defend a woman who is afraid to cooperate in her own defense, lest suspicion will fall on her son instead.

Beverly Barton maintains the mystery of Kent Graham's killer until almost the last page and handles the reviving romance between Johnny Mack and Lane in a believable, if unexciting, fashion. However, with the exception of Lane and the 14-year-old Will, I found most of the denizens of Noble's Crossing less than convincing. Besides the steely-willed matriarch (Edith Graham Ware), there is her 33-year-old daughter with the mind of a child, her ineffectual third husband, the police chief with dark deeds in his past, and the private nurse with a nose for trouble. All of these gothic characters are harboring secrets, secrets that weren’t startling or unexpected when they were revealed.

To sum up, readers who - like me - prefer realistic settings and characterizations in their contemporary romances will want to steer clear of After Dark. Other readers may find the combination of romance and mystery sufficient for their enjoyment. After Dark had enough pluses counteracting its minuses for me to rate it a solid three-heart read.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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