After The Night

All the Queen's Men

A Bouquet of Babies

A Game of Chance

Kill & Tell

Mr Perfect

Now You See Her

Open Season

Shades of Twilight

Son of the Morning

Under the Boardwalk

White Lies

Dying to Please by Linda Howard
(Ballantine, $25.95, R) ISBN 0-345-45270
Linda Howard has been an auto-buy for me for years. I followed her into hardback, hoarding my bonus certificates to make the purchase a little less painful. While, with the exception of Mr. Perfect, I have rarely found her hardbacks to be as compelling as her earlier books, still, I have never felt that I was wasting my money. However, after shelling out hardback prices for her latest romantic suspense, I think that next time I may wait for the paperback or at least check the reviews before taking the plunge. Dying to Please was a disappointment.

First, the plot is all too familiar: an obsessed stalker who will do anything to possess the heroine. Second, the hero is likewise all too familiar: the police detective who is commitment-avoidant thanks to a messy divorce. And the heroine, although she has an unusual job, is a pretty standard character as well.

Sarah Stevens is a butler, trained to manage a household with quiet efficiency. She doubles as a bodyguard for her client, retired federal Judge Roberts. Some of the folks he sent away have threatened vengeance and his children want to make sure he is both protected and taken care of. For this dual role, Sarah is paid $130,000 per year. (Why oh why did I go into teaching!)

Sarah proves her value when she efficiently foils a robbery at the house, disabling both thieves with dispatch. This brings her to the attention of Detective Thompson Cahill. It also brings her to the attention of the press. The local TV station thinks a beautiful female butler is neat and asks to do a feature on her. The judge is delighted, so Sarah is shown ironing his newspaper (Did you know that this well-known practice of butlers has a purpose? It keeps the ink from messing up the reader's fingers) and performing her other butler-y functions.

The TV feature likewise brings Sarah to the attention of our stalker who becomes immediately obsessed with having her as his own. When he fails to lure her away from the judge with a higher salary, he decides to remove the primary obstruction - her devotion to the judge. So he murders the sweet old man, just like that. Clearly our villain has no conscience.

The murder brings Detective Cahill back into Sarah’s life and, once she is cleared of suspicion, the two begin an affair. The sex is pure Howard, hot and heavy and prolonged. (Does anyone really have that much stamina?) The two dance around what their relationship means and where it is going until another murder threatens to break them apart.

What strikes me about Dying to Please is how thin it is. In effect, it is a three character book with none of the richness I have come to expect in a Howard story. There is the romance, the suspense and not much else except a primer on the duties and responsibilities of butler-hood. (Indeed, after seeing how hard Sarah works, I’m glad I did go into teaching.)

The romance is OK. Howard shows us why Cahill and Sarah are a good pair and shows us how their relationship develops, even if it begins with instant lust. The suspense does build as the bodies start mounting up and as the police try to figure out the killer’s twisted motives. The primer on butler-hood will make every reader wish she had one just like Sarah to smooth out all the potholes on the road of life.

I thought long and hard about the “think twice” warning. Perhaps if Dying to Please were even a $7.99 paperback, I might have rated it as acceptable. The story did pick up at the end although some readers might find some elements a bit unpleasant. Still, I suggest that all but the most die-hard Howard fans may want to wait for the paperback release or check the book out of the library. This is not vintage Howard.

--Jean Mason

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