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Avenging Angel by Justine Dare
(Onyx, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-41062-9
I have many Justine Dare/Davis books on my Keeper Shelf, so it really pains me to admit that her recent releases have been slightly disappointing. Avenging Angel is not a bad romantic suspense novel, but it lacks the intensity and passion that are the trademark of Dare’s best work.

There’s a serial killer loose in the Southern California city of Vista Shores, and he or she has a very specific target. The victims are all men who have been accused of battering their wives or girlfriends. As the novel opens, the detectives assigned to the crime realize that the target population is even more narrow - all of the cases involve women who are current or former residents at Rachel’s House, a transitional home for domestic abuse survivors. Regan Keller, director of Rachel’s House, wants the killer caught, but she also wants to protect the women she cares for, who are traumatized by the murders.

Fortunately, Regan has a guardian angel in the form of Lillian Court, the wealthy benefactor of Rachel’s House. Lillian sends her globe-trotting, trouble-shooting son, Alex, to watch over Regan and her flock, but she tells him to go undercover as a handyman so that the women don’t feel even more uncomfortable. Alex is a nice guy, but he has a lot of misconceptions about domestic abuse that are quickly dispelled. As he gains a deeper understanding of the problem, he also finds himself drawn to Regan, whose commitment to the issue is extremely personal.

Meanwhile, Detective Lynne Garrison is finding her first murder case extremely challenging on a variety of levels. She’s nowhere near to solving the crime, and she is forced to work with several cops who have antiquated views on domestic violence. To make matters even worse, when a special task force is established, her ex-husband Drew is brought in as an expert on serial killers.

Avenging Angel works better as a suspense novel than a romance. There are several potential suspects and a few red herrings, although the killer’s identity becomes obvious to the reader long before the police figure it out. The suspense builds well and the last half of the novel is a real page turner with several surprising plot twists.

But the romance between Alex and Regan is lukewarm at best. They just don’t display that palpable, “can’t-live-without-you” passion. Regan is a strong if slightly prickly heroine, but Alex is so well-adjusted and confident that he comes across as rather bland. Frankly, he made me yearn for the dangerous loners who used to populate Dare’s books. The use of the Big Secret plot was frustratingly tiresome; the rationale for hiding Alex’s true identity from Regan seemed flimsy. The secondary romance between Lynne and her ex-husband is under-developed and seems to have been borrowed directly from one of the author’s earlier category novels.

On the plus side, I give Dare credit for creating a realistic portrayal of the many facets of domestic violence - especially the answer to the eternally annoying question of “why doesn’t she just leave him?” She doesn’t portray the women as complete victims, however, and she acknowledges that sometimes their own bad decisions jeopardize their safety. She also addresses the problem of vigilante justice; the murder victims were all abusive men who committed violent acts, but does that give citizens the right to take the law into their own hands?

Avenging Angel is much better than many of the romantic suspense novels that are cluttering bookstore shelves these days, but it fails to reach the heights of Lord of the Storm, the Hawk series or even the Trinity Street category series. I understand that Justine Dare has dealt with some serious family health issues recently, so I respect the fact that she is writing at all these days. I hope she can return to her former glory when and if her life calms down.

--Susan Scribner

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