Midnight Rain by Holly Lisle
(Onyx, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-451-41175-7
****
Holly Lisle has spent her career thus far writing in the fantasy genre. According to the forward, the idea for her first romantic-suspense novel woke her up out of a dead sleep in 1993. Readers should count their blessings that Lisle didn’t just chalk it up to a really vivid dream.

Phoebe Rain is living a very secluded life in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She reads tarot cards over the telephone for the Psychic Sisters Network, goes to the shooting range to fire her gun, and copes with her shattered knee. She thought she was safe. She thought that the man who killed two young students and almost killed her was no longer a threat. But now she’s getting phone calls. Calls that can’t be traced. Calls from a man who sounds exactly like her husband Michael – the man who tried to kill Phoebe and the man she put in a coma.

Dr. Alan MacKerrie is Phoebe’s next-door neighbor. They had never met, until one day they literally run into each other. Then both Alan and Phoebe start receiving ghostly messages of doom from beyond the grave from Alan’s young daughter, who died in a tragic car accident. The phone calls keep escalating, the threats keep coming, and Phoebe knows that someone or something is after her.

Wow, wow, wow – what a story! Phoebe is a woman living on the fringe, and is determined to no longer be scared of her husband. After all, she’s responsible for his coma. The nursing home and the FBI both confirm that Michael hasn’t woken up, and in fact that he’s on the verge of dying. But the caller sounds just like him, and knows things only Michael would know. Then the dreams come. Michael doing things to her, threatening her, and dredging up horrifying memories of their twisted marriage.

Alan is a man living on the fringe, living an isolated life where he works, eats and sleeps. An ER doctor, he has seen horrors just as he has lived them. His wife and child were killed in a car accident while she was en route to leaving him for another man. He knew his marriage was a sham, but he feels guilt over not being able to save his daughter. It haunts him, and he cannot move on.

His daughter’s ghost ultimately throws Phoebe and Alan together, and while Alan finds Phoebe’s story a bit unbelievable, he senses that she’s on the level. She’s genuinely terrified, and while she reads tarot for a living, she has the logical mind of a woman who used to teach science.

Lisle has crafted a page turning read, with the suspense thread really being the driving force. The villain is twisted beyond words, and Phoebe’s horror is contagious. The paranormal touch here is light, and adds a dimension of the unknown to the story. It keeps the reader guessing on what is truly happening – which helps since there aren’t a lot of suspects or red herrings to throw the reader off the scent.

That’s not to say it’s perfect though. Most notably there is a loose thread at the end that isn’t dealt with. The villain gets some help from others, and it’s these “others” that aren’t dealt with in the resolution. Also the romance angle here is a little weak. There are obviously trust issues, as Alan had a bad experience with his dead wife and Phoebe’s story is a bit fantastical. Is she just trying to bag herself a rich husband? And Alan is conflicted, as while there are certain elements in Phoebe’s life that might seem flaky, the woman is anything but. That’s not to say these characters don’t have good reasons for not trusting easily, but it does throw a monkey wrench into the romance at times.

That said the sex here is hot stuff! It’s enough to peel wallpaper, and Lisle could certainly give some romantica authors a run for their money. While there are only a couple of love scenes, they certainly justify the R rating, as does the violence level towards the climatic vision.

Midnight Rain is simply the best romantic suspense novel I have read this year. Readers who enjoy a good cat and mouse page-turner will not want to pass this one by. Lisle may have spent the bulk of her career on fantasy, but if this story is any indication she could have a bountiful career in the romantic suspense realm as well.

--Wendy Crutcher


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