Back Roads by Susan Crandall
(Warner Forever, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61225-1
Back Roads started slowly. I found it relatively easy to put down for the first 100 pages. Then teenager Brittany Wilson disappeared, and I started reading…and reading…and reading, right up until I finished the book at 1:30 a.m.

Even before Susan Crandall’s story hooked me, I was intrigued by her heroine. Leigh Mitchell is the sheriff of Henderson County, and she is looking down the gun barrel at her 30th birthday. Her social life is practically nil; something about that sheriff’s badge intimidates the guys…not that there are that many eligible men in Glens Crossing, Indiana. That is about to change.

Will Scott remembers Glens Crossing from the couple of idyllic weeks he spent there during his troubled childhood. Now he’s been on the run for four months, never staying long in any one place, and his path has taken him to Glens Crossing. As he stands on the outskirts of town, debating whether to revisit the one place from his childhood that he remembers happily, Brittany Wilson offers him a ride as far as the carnival. That decides him, and he accepts her offer.

Eighteen-year-old Brittany is trouble waiting to happen. Her parents are divorced, and her father has married a woman only a few years older than Brittany. Brittany resents her father at the same time that she wants more of his attention. If she can’t get Dad to pay attention to her, she’ll use her sexuality to attract some other older man…and Will is both older and very attractive, with his brilliant blue eyes and midnight-black hair. Too bad he’s more interested in the sheriff than in a rebellious teenager.

At this point, Crandall had set up an all-too-familiar triangle. Bodacious Teenager lusts after Sexy Stranger, Sexy Stranger is attracted to Adult Woman, Adult Woman is leery of Sexy Stranger because she mistakenly thinks he is interested in Bodacious Teenager. To heap cliché upon cliché, Will refuses to tell Leigh anything about his past, leaving Leigh to wonder if he is a cop gone bad or a Mafioso. He also makes it very clear that he is just passing through Glens Crossing. I was bored. Furthermore, I was disappointed that a writer as skilled as Susan Crandall had set up a story based on a series of misunderstandings.

Then Brittany disappeared. Her car was found, abandoned on a country road with its front passenger window smashed in. Her purse and her cell phone were still in the car, making robbery unlikely, but was she kidnapped? Or worse?

That’s where the story improved. First of all, Brittany’s disappearance allowed Leigh to show her professional side. She was no longer just a lonely 30-year-old, she was a capable woman doing a difficult job. The author didn’t have to think up ways to involve her in the mystery; she was involved willy-nilly.

Secondly, as Leigh and Will got to know each other better, Leigh’s suspicions that Will was on the run because of a criminal career diminished, much to my relief. I was not subjected to that familiar seesaw that afflicts so many romance heroines: one minute they are in love, the next minute they are overcome with doubts, then love overrides the doubts, only to be followed by another bout of uncertainty. Instead, as Leigh got to know Will better, her uncertainty diminished steadily…and realistically.

Finally, Back Roads is rich in secondary characters: Leigh’s over-protective brother with an agenda of his own, Mr. Grissom who sees UFOs and brow-beats his wife, Brownie who runs the garage, and Benny the tavern owner, among others. I especially liked a secondary character who was introduced halfway through the book. Dog is a drifter like Will and street-smart like Will. Like calls to like, and I loved it when they became best buddies. Hey, tell me I’m sentimental, but any book that includes a yellow dog with floppy ears earns bonus points from me.

Back Roads doesn’t need bonus points. Persevere through the first 100 pages, and you too may lose sleep as Leigh works on the mystery of Brittany’s disappearance while she and Will slide into love.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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