The Stranger by Jean DeWitt
(Harper, $5.99, R) ISBN:0-06-101359-5
****
Can covers sell books? That is a question oft discussed by romance readers who either love or hate the clinch covers which typify our genre. Well, in the case of Jean DeWitt's new romantic suspense novel, The Stranger, it was the cover that led me to pick up this book. And guess what? Not a clinch in sight! Rather, it was a somehow compelling night scene of a cabin and a waterfall that caught my attention. And although the scene had no relation to the story, I'm glad it caught my eye.

The story begins in Washington near the Canadian border. A man is camping in the woods when a sudden gust of wind knocks over an old tree, pinning him beneath it. And then there is silence.

The next day, Julie Ryan arrives at her grandfather's fishing cabin to investigate the possibility of selling it for her sister. She comes with her cat, Elmore, and a case of champagne. Julie is not happy with her life. After a night spent in the ramshackle cabin, she sets out in a canoe with camera and cat to visit old haunts. There, in a clearing where she and her sister once played, she comes across the man, still pinned under the tree. Hundred dollar bills that have escaped from a cash-filled backpack are blowing in the wind around him.

Julie digs out the stranger, drags him to the canoe and rows him back to the cabin in an increasingly furious storm. She is taken aback when he seems to believe she is his wife, and still more surprised when he claims not to know who he is or where he is or why he was carrying a backpack filled with cash. The money plus the gun she found in the pack make Julie wonder if the stranger is a criminal. She wants nothing more than to get him back to town, but the weather intervenes. The overflowing creek has washed out the road. They are trapped together in the cabin.

His driver's license seems to indicate that he is Derek Rocklin; a picture in his wallet suggests he is married. So why is he so taken with his lovely savior? And why does Julie feel this attraction for this handsome stranger?

DeWitt handles the amnesia aspect of the plot very well. One shares the stranger's dislocation and discomfort. She also creates a menacing aura as the reader discovers that someone is desperately searching for the stranger and, obviously, for the money he is carrying. And she provides a complex mystery about a missing painting, a ransom, and a dangerous villain.

Julie's and the stranger's growing and finally consummated intimacy after such a short acquaintance seems less jarring than is sometimes the case because of the dangers they share. And what intimacy! The book earns its R rating.

There has been a bit of a discussion on one of the lists about character-driven as opposed to plot-driven romances, with a seeming preference for the former. There is no doubt that The Stranger, like most romantic suspense novels, has lots of plot with lots of twists and turns. But it also has well drawn and interesting characters.

Julie has lived a pretty traditional life until thrown unawares into this dangerous situation. She responds with intelligence and courage in the face of unexpected danger and unexpected love.

The stranger (all right, his name is David, not Derek) must also come to terms with the tragedy that marred his life and must decide to live and love again. He recovers himself both figuratively and literally.

Jean DeWitt is a pseudonym for an author who is making her first foray into romantic suspense. The Stranger is a most auspicious effort. Both the suspense and the romance are well done, in just about the right proportions. I sure am glad that cover caught my eye.

--Jean Mason


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