Close Neighbors by Dawn Stewardson
(Harl. Super Rom. #909, $4.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-70909-9
***
Close Neighbors should probably be classed as romantic suspense, but it comes close to being a romantic police procedural or -- if there is such a thing -- a romantic private eye procedural. However you class it, though, Close Neighbors strikes a nice balance between its mystery and its romance.

Anne Barrett has just moved into Chase Nicholson's Toronto neighborhood. Anne began her career as a private detective, working for her father, but after several years she quit to begin writing mysteries for children. Today is her first day in her new house, and she is neglecting her unpacking to start working on a new book.

Chase Nicholson is her new next-door-neighbor, and Chase could use some help from a former P.I. Chaseís household is made up of himself; his nine-year-old daughter, Julie; and his sister, Rachel, a professional photographer. An unconventional arrangement, but it works for them. Both Chase -- an industrial architect -- and Rachel, a freelance photographer, work out of their home, so one or the other is always around to care for Julie.

Now Rachel is in trouble. The day before, as Anne was moving in, the body of Rachelís ex-boy friend was found in a near-by park. The last person to see him alive -- she says -- was Rachel. They met in the park the night before and quarreled about their break-up. Graham shoved Rachel, knocking her down. She says she got up, furious, and went home. The next morning Grahamís body was found, shot to death, at the site of their quarrel.

Julie Nicholson reads Anneís books, and she thinks that the creator of Penelope Snow should be just the person to help her aunt. Even though all the evidence against Rachel is circumstantial, the police have no other suspects, and they seem to be working on strengthening the case against Rachel rather than investigating other suspects. As if that isnít enough, Chase has gotten a call from a blackmailer who says he has the gun Rachel used to kill Graham and that heíll turn it over to the police unless Chase pays him $200,000.

At almost their first encounter, both Chase and Anne experience a "click!" of recognition, as though they had known each other forever. As they work together to try to understand what happened that fateful evening in the park, their relationship progresses rapidly, forced into rapid maturity by the amount of time they spend together and the stress they experience.

Both Chase and Anne are sensible, intelligent adults, with only the usual quirks that adults acquire in 30-plus years of living. Both seemed genuinely nice, and I rooted for them to get together. "Genuinely nice," however, did not translate into "hot, hot, hot" or even into, "When will they ever realize how right they are for each other?"

Similarly, while the methods Chase and Anne used to tackle their mystery are unusually realistic for a romantic suspense novel, they only generated tension in final third of the book. Even then, however, I was easily able to stop myself from skipping to the end to find out what happened, a sure sign that a writer has me on tenterhooks.

One unusual and enjoyable element of Close Neighbors was the portrayal of Chase's daughter, Julie. Periodically throughout the book, Stewardson inserted scenes from Julie's point-of-view. They worked well, showing both how the nine-year-old was affected by events she couldn't really understand and how her coping mechanisms helped to shield her from some of the stress. Julie was a charmer even though I wasn't quite convinced by her reaction to her father's romance with Anne.

Overall, Close Neighbors is well written and generally enjoyable. A little more heat, a little more tension, and I would have happily upgraded it to a four-heart rating.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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