Mariah Stewart, author of several gentle contemporary romances, tries her hand at penning a romantic suspense thriller with Brown Eyed Girl. Is this departure from her usual style a poorly advised attempt to jump on the Nora Roberts/Linda Howard bandwagon? Frankly, the results are a mixed bag, although I admire Stewart's willingness to take a few risks.
Seven years ago Leah McDevitt's younger sister, Melissa, disappeared on her way home from college. Despite Leah's efforts, no trace of Melissa was ever found. Leah was left without any surviving family, with the exception of her cousin Catherine. Together the two women produce Trends, a bimonthly magazine they inherited from their late Uncle.
Leah returns from a business trip to find a shocking letter, indicating that there may be one last chance to find out the truth about Melissa. Convicted serial killer Raymond Lambert has written to Leah from Death Row. He promises to tell her what he knows about Melissa's disappearance -- for a price. But before Lambert can fully divulge that information, he is murdered by a fellow inmate. Leah is no further in her search for answers than she was before -- or is she? In her one brief meeting with Lambert, the murderer proudly showed her a biography of himself written by private investigator Ethan Sanger. Leah decides to contact Sanger to see if he has any notes or tape recordings that might provide clues about her sister's fate. Did Lambert murder Melissa, did he know her killer, or was he just playing a sick game with Leah?
Meanwhile, in the secluded Maine woods, Ethan Sanger has no desire to discuss Raymond Lambert, the man who killed his beloved wife Libby, with anyone. The memories are just too painful and his grip on sanity too tentative. He uses all of his internal resources to care for his teenaged daughter and his elderly but spry father. But when Ethan meets Leah and realizes she shares the same sort of pain, he reconsiders
his vow of silence. As they listen to Raymond's rambling taped narrative, someone else is watching Leah with evil, twisted eyes, waiting for the chance to strike.
Mariah Stewart creates a convincingly creepy character in Raymond Lambert, in a Hannibal Lecter sort of way. He is definitely evil personified. But frankly, she's just not dark enough to carry out a truly successful suspense novel. It's like putting a sheep in wolf's clothing -- the mildness just keeps showing through the alleged darkness. Even though Ethan is supposed to be a tortured hero, he quickly finds himself attracted to Leah and is soon murmuring words of love and affection. His initial distrust of her motives is forgotten within 10 pages of their meeting. Similarly, Ethan's daughter forms an immediate bond with Leah, exhibiting none of the typical teenaged resentment or rebellion.
Some of Stewart's attempts to create suspense are reminiscent of those bad horror movies in which the heroine makes dumb moves and the audience screams, "Don't do that! Don't go in there!" These scenes are more annoying than thrilling. And finally, thanks to some astute FBI agents, the identity of the villain is solved around Ethan and Leah, not by them. The novel would have been more rewarding if they had played a more active role in the mystery.
In the end, a moderately surprising plot twist almost redeems the story. And Stewart does a wonderful job at portraying the beauty of the Maine wilderness. She would be a very successful travel writer.
Mariah Stewart will never be confused with Anne Stuart. Brown Eyed Girl is Suspense Lite, suitable for those who want some sweetness mixed in with their thrills and chills. It will be interesting to see if Stewart's next effort returns to her mild roots or if she continues to explore this new avenue. Does the world really need another romantic suspense author? Personally, I'd rather see Stewart stick with straight contemporary romance -- there are too few novels to choose from when one is not in the mood for murder and mayhem.