Fade To Black, by Leslie Parrish

>> Monday, August 24, 2009

TITLE: Fade To Black
AUTHOR: Leslie Parrish

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Signet

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: First in the Black CAT trilogy

REASON FOR READING: Great buzz

Dean Taggert, a former street cop turned FBI agent, has accepted a transfer into a new CAT for one reason: he needs to remove the violence from his life in order to get his ex to give him more time with his son. Not easy to do when he's been thrust into the darkest, most violent investigation of his career. A psychopath calling himself the Reaper is auctioning off murder at a deviant cyber club called Satan's Playground, and Dean and his team are forced to helplessly witness the killer's brutal crimes online.

Stacey Rhodes is happy in her quiet, sleepy little town of Hope Valley, Virginia, where she has taken over as Sheriff because of her father's ill health. Nothing much seems to happen here, except for the mysterious disappearance of the town bad girl a year ago. So she is shocked when a sexy, brooding FBI agent intrudes on her world, bringing evidence that the missing local girl was the victim of a serial killer. Even more shocking, that serial killer might be someone she knows.

Maybe even someone she loves....
Dean Taggart joined Wayne Blackstone's Cyber Action Team, or CAT (see where the name of the series comes from?) to get away from the darkness of his previous job. Yes, this is a CAT formed to investigate internet-related murders, but Dean expected something in the line of turf battles between scammers, that sort of thing. He didn't expect what one of his colleagues finds online one day.

The Devil's Playground is a website where its members can virtually amuse themselves committing acts that would get them in shitloads of trouble in the real world. There are torturers, pedophiles and rapists around, all having their sick fun. Bad enough if this was only virtual, but one of the members, who goes by The Reaper, has taken his evil to the real world. Dean's colleague has found videos posted by him of women being murdered, in horribly creative ways decided by his eager audience at the Devil's Playground, who pay well for the privilege.

Determined to stop the killer, the CAT members focus on the his first victim. For various reasons, they suspect she and her killer might have had a personal connection, and so Dean and his boss end up at the small town of Hope Valley, where a missing person has been reported who fits the victim's profile.

Stacey Rhodes has recently taken over as sheriff of Hope Valley, after years in a big city police force. Stacey was one of the first responders after the Virginia Tech massacre, and what she saw shook her badly. Her motives to go back to her home town are akin to Dean's in moving to the CAT, but like him, she gets a lot more than she'd bargained for when Dean and his colleagues come calling.

There was a recent post at one of the AAR message boards about how this had turned out to be an excellent summer for romantic suspense. Having just finished Kate Brady's very promising debut and now the excellent Fade To Black (not to mention that the new Karen Rose is just out), I have to wholeheartedly agree.

I expected something slightly different when I started the book, though, and had a very pleasant surprise. The AAR review was careful to point out that the romance wasn't very heavy, and that this was more of a "Mystery/Suspense novel with a strong romantic theme". Then there was someone who posted at the message boards complaining that this wasn't romantic suspense, not a romance novel at all, in fact. I do like good suspense, so I decided to read it anyway, forewarned not to expect much romance.

I might not have expected it, but to my surprise, I got it, in spades. The relationship between Dean and Stacey was very well developed. There was a great sense of intimate connection between the two. They admire each other's dedication and competence, and they understand how difficult it is to deal with the darkness. By the end of the book, I fully believed these two people were deeply in love, even if the action had taken place over a shortish period.

This well-developed romance didn't mean the suspense was any less well done. In fact, the perfect balance between the romance and the suspense reminds me of some of my favourite Karen Rose books.

It's a really interesting case as well, and I liked that although some very horrifying things happen, the descriptions never felt gratuitous, and I didn't find it particularly hard to deal with them. Not to belabour the comparison with Karen Rose, but it was a bit like Die For Me in that way.

The investigation was perfect, with very smart work from the CAT and Stacey. They make no unfounded assumptions, and sometimes the things they try don't work, but they felt like a good, solid, competent team. The twists kept coming and made sense, and I was only a tiny step ahead of the investigators when the culprit was discovered.

As mentioned above, this book starts a trilogy, and there are some intriguing hints about the next books. These stay at merely hints, rather than full-blown sequel-baiting, and so succeeded in making me eager to read the next installments, rather than irritate me.

Leslie Parrish, who writes series romance as Leslie Kelly, has gone straight to my autobuy list with this one.

MY GRADE: An B+.

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