Ever since I discovered Linda Howard on 15 March 1997 (approximately), I've read and reread her works. I read for the same reasons as everybody else…her alpha males, her spunky women, the steamy sex. I also read Howard because from time to time she pushes the romance novel envelope. In Mr. Perfect that envelope gets several definite shoves, in several different directions. Some work, others are more problematic.
Despite the fact that romances are termed "women's literature," the genre rarely explores the friendship circles that women form even though we all see them all around us. Marci Dean, Luna Scissum, T. J. Yother, and Jaine Bright make up just such a group. All four of them work at Hammerstead Technology, and all four are losing at the game of love. Marci has been married and divorced three times and has settled for sex instead of love, Luna is dating an NFL running back who cheats on her whenever he's out of town, T.J.'s marriage is shaky, and Jaine has been engaged three times and jilted three times.
Every Friday night the four meet for dinner at a local restaurant. This time, contemplating their imperfect love lives, they start listing the requirements for the perfect man. Most of the requirements can be discussed in mixed company without raising a blush but as the list gets longer, the requirements get more risqué. Laughing so hard it hurts, they write them all down and Marci tucks the list into her briefcase.
Something like The List, as it comes to be called, is hard to keep quiet. By the following Monday, it has appeared in the unofficial company newspaper. Once in print, it takes on a life of its own, and all too quickly the four friends are getting more attention than they ever dreamed of. Most of the attention is harmless, but one person decides that the bitches who thought up that List must die.
Jaine's character is Howard's second push at the romance envelope. Howard has written quite a few spunky heroines but Jaine is beyond spunky. She has a hair-trigger temper, uses language that would make a longshoreman blush, and blurts out all the thoughts that you and I think but are too chicken to say. Right now the individual that is triggering her temper most frequently is the guy who lives next door to the house she just bought. He's a drunk, he's dirty, he drives a beat-up old Pontiac (Jaine's car is a Viper), and he usually rolls in at about 3:00 a.m., waking Jaine up.
Sam Donovan isn't much happier with his new neighbor than Jaine is with him. A detective with the Warren Police Department, he's been on a special task force, working all kinds of hours, and he doesn't appreciate it when Jaine starts up her lawn mower at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning when he'd planned on sleeping in. Sam's temper is as easily provoked as Jaine's, and the confrontation that follows - like most of their encounters - is laugh-out-loud funny. Funny seems to be a new ploy for Howard - All the Queen's Men had some of the funniest one-liners I've ever read - and she does it very well. Sam and Jaine's dialogue is a consistent delight.
The third element that sets this work apart from most romances - and even from some crime stories - is the brutality of the killing that follows publication of The List. Howard has done this before, in Dream Man, and I had difficulty with it there. Although the killing in Mr. Perfect does not involve a child, as it does in Dream Man, I found the killing this time even more upsetting. This time the killing involves a character the reader has come to know well. We have had scenes from the victim's point of view; we know her friends and how her death will affect them; we know that, even though she was far from perfect herself, she did not deserve to have her life ended so viciously.
How do these three elements - the friendship of the four women, Jaine's and Sam's sparring matches, and the investigation of a grim crime - work together? Imperfectly, I'm afraid. I felt as though I were reading two different books simultaneously, one a light-hearted story of romance and friendship, the other the story of a crime and its impact on everyone the victim knew. Both stories deserve to be told, but they bumped shoulders awkwardly within the confines of one narrative.
Will I reread Linda Howard's Mr. Perfect? Certainly. Not many books come my way with five strong female characters - add Jaine's sister Shelley to the list of strong women - and a man who is comfortable around them. Not many books explore the emotional trauma a murder inflicts on the family and friends of the victim. Sure, I would have enjoyed Mr. Perfect more if the two elements had blended more smoothly, but I respect Ms. Howard for taking a chance with a story and pushing that envelope. There's still plenty to enjoy in Mr. Perfect even if it's not perfect.
--Nancy J. Silberstein