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The Midnight Hour
by Karen Robards
(Delacorte, $24.95, R) ISBN 0-385-31971-1
****
Several years ago, romance author Karen Robards made the switch from writing straight romance to writing romantic suspense. The Midnight Hour is one of her most successful efforts in this genre to date. The characterization is strong, the plot credible, and the mood tense.

Grace Hart is a family court judge. Her young teenaged daughter Jessica, who suffers from diabetes, has begun slipping out of the house at night and experimenting with drugs and alcohol (a no-no for a diabetic). Furthermore, Grace fears that someone is breaking into their house. When Jessica is found drunk by two undercover policeman, Grace asks them to take her and Jessica to the emergency room. One of the officers, whom she refers to as Mr. Obnoxious, is obviously disapproving of Grace's handling of her daughter.

The next day the officer, now identified as Tony Marino, comes to her chambers to inform Grace of the circumstances under which they found Jessica, which are enough to give any mom a major chill. He asks that Jessica work with him to build a case against drug distributors, but Grace refuses because she doesn't want to jeopardize Jessica's safety.

The break-in incidents increase, and both Grace and Jessica sense they are being watched. Grace suspects that someone is stalking Jessica believing that she is a police informant. Because Grace is a judge, the police provide her around-the-clock protection even though they discount her fears, and Tony is assigned to stay with them nights.

Tony, whose daughter died of cystic fibrosis (the source of a supernatural element in the story), starts seeing Grace in a romantic light and thinking of her and Jessica as "his girls." Before long, Grace's lunch hours are being spent in Tony's bed. But the threatening episodes are escalating, and a long-kept secret is about to explode in violence.

What makes The Midnight Hour so successful is that Grace's situation is both sympathetic and believable. A divorced woman whose ex-husband provides practically no assistance in the raising of their child, she is struggling to balance career, motherhood, and home life. Devoted to her daughter and conscientious in her many responsibilities, she's subject to many of the same doubts and concerns of millions of women in her situation. Her actions as the mother of a teenager ring true to any woman who's been there done that. There is no little irony in Grace's being a judge on family court and her having a daughter who's getting into much the same kind of trouble as the teens who appear before her.

Tony is a Romance Hero in capital letters. He's good-looking, he's tough, he's considerate, he's a devoted family man. It's no wonder Grace falls for him any woman would. It's a little annoying that he initially doesn't take Grace's fears very seriously, but he eventually wises up.

Ms. Robards is to be congratulated on her realistic portrayal of Jessica. Here is a teenager who has problems dealing with a chronic illness and deeply desires to fit in with other teens. Too often authors don't provide their child or teenaged characters with any depth they're either cute or rotten with little shading in between. Jessica is fortunately as multi-dimensional as the adult characters, and the story is the better for it.

A problem for authors who write romantic suspense is to keep the romance and suspense in balance, not to overdo or neglect one or the other. The Midnight Hour is a successful mix of both. Fans of romantic suspense will want to check this one out.

--Lesley Dunlap


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