|Stacy Killian (the sister of the heroine in See Jane Die) is a graduate student in English at the University of New Orleans. She resigned after ten years as a police officer with the Dallas Police Department, but she hasn’t lost the instincts, the drive, or the gun. One night she’s awakened by gunshots. She goes to investigate the apartment next door and finds the two young women living there dead. She calls the police.
Spencer Malone (the brother of the hero in Bone Cold) and Tony Sciame are the two detectives who respond to the call. Spencer has a lot to prove because he’s been named to the division to keep him from suing the department. (This must have been covered in the earlier novel because it’s frequently alluded to in this one but never fully explained.) They agree with Stacy’s opinions of what happened but say they’ll handle it.
Stacy was friends with Cassie, one of the two victims, and can’t leave it to the police. She starts her own investigation and begins to suspect that the deaths were somehow related to White Rabbit, a role-playing game. There is one Supreme White Rabbit controlling the game as well as any number of other players.
The cops have their prime suspect in the killings, a former boyfriend of Cassie’s who had been stalking and harassing her. Stacy is not so easily dissuaded. When she is assaulted in the library, she believes she’s been warned off trying to delve more deeply into the killings.
Stacy learns that White Rabbit was developed years before by Leo Noble and a friend while in graduate school at the University of California when they grew bored with Dungeons and Dragons. Leo is now living in New Orleans with his ex-wife and manager Kay and their teenaged daughter Alice. When another killing seems to reinforce Stacy’s theories, Spencer begins to take her seriously. A pivotal piece of evidence left at every crime scene are Alice in Wonderland inspired original postcards. Before they can learn anything from the artist, he too is killed. Leo hires Stacy to provide security for his family, and she moves into their house. Stacy receives a chilling message: she’s now one of the players in the game.
If Killer Takes All is supposed to be romantic suspense, there’s darned little romance in it and not much real suspense. The plot has more abrupt twists and false endings than a bunny rabbit has offspring. Just when you think the mystery’s about to be solved, nope, it’s a false lead and the story bounds off in another direction. It often comes across as completely contrived: a lot depends on no one answering their phones at crucial times or the cops getting there precious moments too late or the lead suspect getting bumped off just before he can say anything. Perhaps with some critical editing, the plot could be more taut, but the pacing bogs down not long after the first chapters so sticking with it till the final resolution is something of an ordeal.
The story line was likely inspired by recent debate over whether role-playing games (RPG) might precipitate violence among some players. The book’s concept is that an RPG goes beyond fantasy into reality – rather than killing off characters, the players are being eliminated. For those of us who are not very familiar with RPG, the book doesn’t provide much background. Alice fabricates a game to demonstrate how it’s played for Stacy and Spencer, but the explanation can be more confusing than illuminating.
The relationship between Stacy and Spencer is unconvincing. Would a police detective really permit a civilian, ex-police or not, to repeatedly interfere with his investigation? At one point, their individual investigations bring them to the same place, and Spencer even permits Stacy to pursue some leads rather than asking questions first. It rang false with me.
When their semi-professional relationship moves into the personal realm, it lacks any romantic luster. They’re hooking up, not falling in love. The long-term chances of this being a happily ever after don’t seem promising.
Romantic suspense is a popular genre with new titles being published every month. Lacking both a credible romance and a well-crafted mystery, Killer Takes All does not rank among the best. Readers are advised to think twice before choosing this one.