The House at Briar Lake

Operation: Katie

Operation: Mistletoe by Roxanne Rustand
(Harl. Super.#1096, $5.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-71096-8
Special Agent Sara Hanrahan has come back to her hometown of Ryansville after a long absence as an undercover DEA agent investigating drug shipments being routed through the small Minnesota town’s only industry, Sandersons, a home products manufacturing plant. She doesn’t expect a warm welcome, and doesn’t get one. Townspeople haven’t forgotten that twenty-five years ago her father killed one of the most popular men in town and just hours later committed suicide. Her mother became a recluse, her brother a drug addict, and Sara got into law enforcement. Now she’s been asked to go home again and hopes to mend fences with her mother and brother as well as stop the drug shipments.

Sara is only in town a few hours when she meets Deputy Sheriff Nathan Roswell, son of the richest family in town. Nathan has earned the disapproval of his family by refusing to go into the “family companies,” choosing instead a career in law enforcement, something his family considers far beneath him. He notices Sara immediately, and wonders about all the late night “walks” she takes and why she’s really moved to town.

Sara is determined to ignore the increasing attraction between her and Nathan. She doesn’t want to stay in Minnesota and is still wary of involvement after her fiancé and partner was shot in a raid two years before. Plus, she definitely doesn’t want Nathan finding out about why she’s in town, since the case she’s working on may have law enforcement officers involved on the wrong side of the law. Nathan knows Sara is keeping secrets, and pushing him away, but doesn’t know why. Meanwhile, their occasional dates have drawn the attention of the townspeople, and the ire of his mother and her friends.

Two secondary story lines add to the mix. Eight-year-old Josh Shueller is the son of Zoe and Bob Shueller, Sara’s landlords, and falls in love with Harold, Sara’s retired K9 patrol dog. Josh is also the youngest and smallest kid in his class, and gets harassed regularly by older, bigger bullies. When he notices the attraction between Sara and Nathan, he decides to do whatever he can to help their romance along, not always successfully.

Earl Stark is the town junkman, reclusive and sometimes hostile, whom Josh finds dead in the woods one night when he takes Harold for a walk, even though he doesn’t have permission to leave the yard. Afterwards, Sara becomes concerned about Earl’s retarded son, Leon, who is in his mid-forties and unable to function well on his own. Her gentle determination eventually results in his being incorporated into the community in a way his father never permitted, but this thread seems to take a larger part of the book than perhaps it should have. All of these things tie into the plot surrounding Sandersons and also the mystery still surrounding Frank Grover’s murder and Daniel Hanrahan’s alleged confession and suicide twenty-five years before.

While the plot is interesting and the mystery fairly well done, the characters seem flat and uninvolving, so the reader never really wants to get to know them. Josh is the only character with any energy, but he can’t carry the whole book. In addition, although it is a romance title, the hero/heroine connection takes second place to Sara’s investigation and her rescuing Leon for a majority of the book. The conflict between Nathan and his family seems forced (Why are they still stubbornly giving him grief over his career?) and in contrast, their reaction to their son dating (and bringing to a holiday family dinner) the daughter of the town’s worst criminal is unrealistically calm. The sexual relationship between Nathan and Sara isn’t described directly, and fades to black just before things get very hot. Onstage action is limited pretty much to kissing and petting and descriptions of the mysterious attraction they have to each other, although they seem to have little in common other than similar careers.

The mystery Sara is investigating unravels rather quickly, bringing the book to a rather abrupt ending, with each and every thread neatly tied in a bow. Resolving the murder-suicide and shutting down the drug shipments make everything perfect for everyone just in time for “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.”

--Joni Richards Bodart

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