Delayed Diagnosis

Prescribed Danger

Sleep Softly
by Gwen Hunter
(Mira, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-7783-2464-8
Gwen Hunter has captured the vagaries of the South like few romantic suspense authors have been able to do. This is indeed fortunate as it is the sense of family and place in rural South Carolina that drives this story.

The family is the Chadwick Family, some two or three hundred of them, depending upon whether or not one counts fourth cousins. Nana is the matriarch of the family and still runs the farming enterprise, living next door to her grandaughter Ashlee and great granddaughter Jasmine. "Aunt Moses" is Nana's constant companion, and is a Chadwick who is descended from the portion of the family that intermarried with a freed slave after the Civil War.

Ashlee is a widowed forensic nurse. Her daughter Jas is in college. Returning home from a shift one morning, one of Ashlee’s dogs presents her with a red shoe. Upon closer examination she discovers a toe in it. She goes in search of a body and when found in the Chadwick graveyard, the Sheriff's Office and then later the FBI respond.

The remains are those of a young missing female teenager and the items found with her link her to other murdered girls, soon to be known as victims of the Ballerina Killer. Jim Ramsey is one of the responding FBI agents and someone Ashlee knows and admires. The Special Agent in Charge Emma Simmons and Ashlee immediately clash, merely inciting Simmons to really focus on Ashlee and the Chadwick family as suspects.

Careful analysis by the FBI further heightens their suspicions as all the victims have in some fashion or another been Chadwicks.  The story thus progresses on four fronts: the Chadwicks versus the FBI in the hunt for the killer, Ashlee and her career at the hospital, Ashlee and her attraction to Jim and, very importantly, the twisted mind of the killer as he plans and botches subsequent kidnappings.

The story is told with a great deal of humor which balances the insanity of the killer. In addition to the humor, the reader becomes part of the Chadwick family as they participate in finding the killer. The characters are very well developed, jaunty, and almost eclipse the plot. The romantic side of this novel pales in comparison, making the story in many ways a nontraditional romantic suspense novel.

Sleep Softly starts slowly and the investigation proceeds forward solely as the result of the Chadwick family contributions. The strong sense of setting and large family of memorable characters make Sleep Softly an enjoyable yet untraditional romantic suspense novel.

--Thea Davis

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