Unspoken Fear by Hunter Morgan
(Zebra, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-28217-7946-X
**
Unspoken Fear is part relationship novel, part thriller, part police procedural. Unfortunately, the sum of these parts don't add up to a great whole, and the book would have been much better if it had stuck with one part only, preferably the domestic drama. There is more than enough angst and mystery there to keep it going for several hundred pages. The hurdles the main couple overcome in their personal development are, in any case, far more convincing than the dubious and hyperbolic serial killer story that supposedly impedes their personal happiness.

Noah Gibson has just got out of prison for killing two people while driving drunk. Once a minister in a small town in Delaware, he lost his faith and turned to alcohol after a series of personal tragedies. Reformed and dry once again, he is planning to take over the management of his parents' vineyard from his ex-wife, Rachel. In the meantime, the two share a house, along with her four-year-old daughter Mallory and Mattie, an idiot savant who collects Bibles he cannot read and plays the church organ without any formal training.

While Rachel and Noah try to get their lives in order and decide whether they have a future together, someone else in the small Delaware town is on a divine mission against sinners. Adulterers, thieves and homosexuals are slaughtered in the most graphic, Old Testament manner. Not surprisingly, suspicion points to Noah. The town sheriff and his deputy try to make the case stick, but they are also open-minded enough to explore other angles.

Morgan exploits the claustrophobia of small town life to create an eerie atmosphere. She nevertheless goes over the top by giving Rachel strange, prophetic dreams and Noah unexplicable blackouts. Officer Snowden and Deputy Swift, who are also battling their attraction to each other, are likeable characters, but their police work just isn't up to par. They hope to identify the murderer by going through the purchase list of a local hardware store. As if one couldn't buy a machete elsewhere!

I couldn't take any of red herrings seriously, and the solution to the mystery is a major disappointment. Although several scenes are given in the villain's point of view, the character is never really introduced and nothing points to his/her guilt until the end. The climax is drawn out over several chapters only to be resolved in the most unsatisfactory fashion: it is never really clear whether the evil is human or something else. Worse, the vague and inconclusive allusions to supernatural intervention do little to heighten the suspense and everything to make the writer's ploys excessive, transparent and annoying.

Morgan makes every attempt to play with our heartstrings: through an ex-minister on the path to redemption, a sheriff whose white mother never revealed the name of his African-American father, a mentally handicapped man who is more emotionally disturbed than might be warranted, and a four-year-old with a very bad lisp. The first three work to some extent, but the last is contrived, hollow and inauthentic. Much is made of Mallory's speech impediment, but although Noah helps her get rid of part of it, the rest comes and goes with as much sense as a summer shower. Which reminds me, how many four-year-olds do you know who count Harry Potter as bedtime reading?

With this one exception, the characters have much more depth than the manipulative plot deserves. It's too bad really because Morgan writes nicely, and her insights into Noah's and Rachel's relationship suggest she knows enough of the human heart not to have to resort to cheap tricks. Hopefully, her next venture will be more solid.

--Mary Benn


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