Open Season is Linda Howard at the top of her game. All of her trademarks are here: wiseguy alpha hero, smart heroine with a bit of sass, a relationship that sizzles, intriguing secondary characters, and a thread of suspense to tie them all together. Her legion of fans can rejoice.
Daisy Minor, small-town Alabama librarian, wakes up on her thirty-fourth birthday to the dreary realization that she has no life. She lives with her beloved mother and aunt; she holds a responsible but unexciting job; her clothes, hair, and demeanor are somewhere between drab and cipher. As Daisy sits in her seersucker pajamas and ponders the fact that her last date was in 1993 (“ the hopeless going on a mercy date with the pitiful”), she realizes her dreams of a husband and children are dying, and it’s time to make some changes. Major changes.
Much to Daisy’s surprise, her announcement that she’s moving out and re-shaping her life is met with pleased approval from Mama and Aunt Joella. Soon Daisy is renting a dilapidated house and having her hair and wardrobe made over by Todd Lawrence, a gay antiques dealer who once worked on Broadway. Todd knows his stuff (and a lot more). The next step for the newly-blonde, newly-styled Daisy is to make herself appear at places where single men might notice her. First stop: the Buffalo Club.
No matter where Daisy turns, though, she seems to run into Police Chief Jack Russo, one man who is definitely not her type. Jack is a former SWAT team member who gave up New York for small-town Hillsboro when his great-aunt died and left him the old Victorian house in which he’d spent happy boyhood summers. Jack enjoys the unhurried pace of Hillsboro, and he particularly enjoys getting a rise out of the mousy town librarian with the killer smile. But when Jack spends an evening surveying a local club for possible date-rape drugs and ends up rescuing a classy blonde from a brawl, he’s bowled over. Good golly, Miss Molly, er, Miss Daisy!
Daisy is unsettled, but undeterred by the big cop with the brawny muscles, and continues on her quest. Jack definitely gets in her way. When Daisy decides to “advertise” her availability by purchasing condoms at the local drugstore, she rightly assumes the gossipy clerk will spread this tidbit all over town by nightfall. Unfortunately, Jack is standing in line behind her, empty-handed, leading everyone to believe they are having a fling. Not that Jack minds - he’s becoming more and more intrigued by Miss Daisy. If she’s determined to use up that PartyPak of six dozen assorted condoms, he plans to be the one to help her out. Daisy soon finds that the wrong man can show her all the right moves.
The suspense revolves around a white-slavery sex ring in which innocent immigrant girls are sold to the highest bidder and then forced into prostitution. Date-rape drugs play a big part. Readers will know from the outset who is involved; the story here is how they are caught. Daisy finds herself in danger when she witnesses something she isn’t supposed to see. Not everyone is what they seem to be, and Jack has his hands full trying to protect Daisy and piece together the clues.
Howard is in her element when doing cop heroes, thanks to her talents in character development and dialogue. Jack Russo is a formidable guy. Sharp, with an edge of suspicion and gut instinct that all good cops have, he’s also clear-eyed and honest about himself and his feelings toward Daisy. Here’s a guy who isn’t looking to fall in love, but doesn’t fight it when it happens. Some of his interaction with Daisy is laugh-out-loud funny, too.
Daisy, for her part, is a bit softer than some of Howard’s recent heroines, but readers shouldn’t take that as a sign of weakness. In fact, Daisy is uncommonly sharp in that she’s smart enough to realize her limitations and let Jack handle the police end of things. When Jack worries that she’ll try to take matters into her own hands, she points out
“Have I ever given you any reason to think I’m stupid?…That’s what always happens in movies; either the woman or the kid disobeys instructions and does exactly what they’ve been told not to do, thereby putting both themselves and everyone else in danger. I’ve always thought that if they were that stupid, then let them die before they have a chance to breed.”
A round of applause, please. As for the secondary characters, they all have important parts to play. Todd Lawrence in particular deserves his own story. Mama and Aunt Joella aren’t exactly the stereotypical small-town housewives, and the villains in the story are professional crooks the gore is minimal. Furthermore, the climax felt realistic. Too often a romantic suspense ends in a Hollywood-style bloodbath that seems not only forced but improbable, i.e. the cops couldn’t quite get it right so things explode. Here it’s handled with a slight understatement that carries a powerful impact.
And the sexual tension is hot enough to melt. It’s not only Daisy doing the melting, either. When Jack and Daisy finally open that PartyPak, they both have some hot surprises waiting.
Open Season is likely my favorite Linda Howard of the past few years, and that includes last year’s highly-successful Mr. Perfect. Romantic suspense, with an emphasis on the romance and elegantly presented - what more could a reader want?