Tight Rope by Deanie Francis Mills
(Signet, $6.99, NV) ISBN 0-451-18895-0
****
Looking for a suspense read that engages your emotions as well as your mind? Tight Rope is an above-average thriller distinguished by its unexpected personal touches. I'd definitely seek out previous or future novels by Deanie Francis Mills.

Rebekah "Max" Maxfield has served seven years in prison for a crime she had to commit. Her husband, a powerful federal judge, was sexually abusing their young daughter, Gaby. Max took Gaby and fled, living on the run for a year. But when she realized that their vagabond existence was hurting Gaby, she hid the girl away with a permanent, secret caretaker, and turned herself in. Because she had falsified ID documents while she was a fugitive, her case became a federal crime and she was given the maximum sentence. She has served without complaint and has refused to reveal the whereabouts of her daughter.

Now, as the days of her sentence are waning, she is surprised to have an unfamiliar visitor. Garrett Sharp is the head of CovertCom, a company specializing in counter-surveillance, or electronic eavesdropping detection. He claims he has heard of her case and admires her loyalty. In addition, he knows that she has a degree in electrical engineering. He offers her a well-paying job with CovertCom when her sentence is complete. Max is suspicious and declines the offer, believing there must be a catch.

Then she has another visitor Jack Underwood of the FBI, who has an offer Max can't refuse. The FBI is investigating CovertCom after several clients accused the company of double-crossing them and selling their secrets to competitors. He asks Max to accept Sharp's offer and try to obtain evidence of CovertCom's illegal activities. When Max refuses, he increases the stakes: she must spy for the FBI, or Underwood will do everything within his power to find Gaby's hiding place and turn her over to Max's ex-husband. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Max has no choice but to agree.

This is the beginning of a tense deadly game for Max, with twists and turns as she tries to discover who is telling the truth and who the good guys really are. Her mission is complicated by the fact that she falls in love with her CovertCom supervisor, Dominic, who is well aware of the company's shady activities. But Max has to keep going with the game, even when she is sure there's no way she can win, because if she quits, Gaby's life will be in danger.

Tight Rope is well-plotted with surprises at key junctures that keep the reader involved up to the last page. The writing is occasionally awkward, and there are a few passages that involve too much electronic techno-talk, but those are only minor weaknesses. What sets the novel apart from other suspense thrillers I've encountered is the strong tie Max has with her family and the ways they help her out. Max has three brothers, and each one contributes to her cause even as they quibble among themselves and roughhouse as real brothers do. Max's mother features prominently in the story as well, and it's nice to see a functional mother-daughter relationship that fortifies the heroine.

The book's front cover promises "a new experience in fear from one of the top authors of suspense fiction." I would argue that fear is not one of the more prominent emotions in this novel. We're not talking Steven King or Dean Koontz here. But Mills does deliver the suspense and even a few nervous chuckles along the way. By the time Max has emerged from her no-win situation as a winner, the reader has come to care for her; that's the most rewarding surprise in the novel.

--Susan Scribner


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