Ghost Moon

The Midnight Hour

Paradise County


The Senator's Wife

To Trust a Stranger

Vanished by Karen Robards
(Putnam, $24.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-399-15338-1
We’ve all seen them: news stories about little kids who disappear without a trace, never to be seen again. I sometimes wonder how their parents manage to go on with their lives not knowing whether their child is living or dead or trapped in some miserable existence. It’s possible that Karen Robards has wondered the same thing and Vanished is the result.

Sarah Mason is an assistant district attorney working in Beaufort, South Carolina. Late one evening she stops at a convenience store to pick up dog food for her large dog. While she is there, two young punks hold up the store. Sarah notices a little girl hiding under a table and hopes she will remain silent. One of the crooks shoots and kills the store clerk. Sarah grabs the child’s hand and runs for the door. Outside, the concussion from the shattering window knocks her to the pavement; the bullet intended for her only grazes her scalp.

Police arrive in time. One hold-up man is killed; the other is wounded. Sarah is rushed to the hospital.

As she slowly regains consciousness, she remembers the day seven years earlier when her five-year-old daughter Lexie disappeared at a summer picnic. Pregnant, married, and divorced when she was a young college student, Sarah was a devoted single mother. Lexie was the center of her life. Sarah finished college and started law school. After Lexie’s disappearance, Sarah completed her law degree then returned to Beaufort still hoping Lexie would one day be found. She focuses her energies on her job with little time left for a personal life.

Early on she contacted private investigator Jake Hogan hoping he would find some trace the police had overlooked. In the intervening years she and Jake have become close friends – best friends forever – although her dog Sweetie-pie barely tolerates him. But soon strange things begin to happen – Sarah gets a phone call she is sure is from Lexie – the five-year-old Lexie. Is she imagining things, or is there more going on than anyone suspects?

The character development in Vanished is especially strong. Over the course of the story, these memorable characters become more than mere names on a page. Sarah’s reaction to the disappearance of her only child rings true, and her long-standing relationship with Jake is believable. I’ve never been a fan of cutesy pets in books, but Sweetie-pie is anything but cutesy and does serve a legitimate purpose in the plot.

Romantic suspense is currently a popular genre with lots of titles on bookstore shelves to choose from. A successful romantic suspense novel requires a careful balance of the suspense and romance elements. Vanished could be a model of how to do it right. The suspense elements are tight – I had to take breathing breaks. From the high-adrenaline opening scene to the final page, the tension never lets up. The romance is secondary to the suspense but is still satisfying and convincing. There are even some clever comic relief moments. My sole – and minor–complaint is that the ending seems too abrupt; I would have liked an epilogue.

Karen Robards has an impressive list of books to her credit spanning more than two decades. In Vanished she has written her best book ever. This is one of the best books of the year regardless of genre – straight romance, suspense, or a mix of the two. Don’t miss it.

--Lesley Dunlap

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