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A Stranger’s Game
by Joan Johnston
(Pocket, $24.95, PG)  ISBN 0-7434-5438-3
Lately, I have found myself wanting to give those ½ hearts out and this book has me leaning in that direction.  So, I settled for a three-heart rating, but with a strong recommendation for the main story amid a couple of caveats.

A Stranger’s Game is a tale of mystery, intrigue, murder, and there is some nice romance thrown in.  The fact that the romance is between an FBI agent and his suspect makes it a little disquieting for me, but since this is often a ploy used, I let this go fairly quickly. The other item that the reader has to believe to make this story palatable is that an FBI agent of over 20 years might be a serial murderer and get away with it. If you can go there, then you will enjoy this taut, sometimes intense journey that keeps the reader turning the pages. If you can’t go there, then this is just a run-of-the-mill romantic suspense tale.

Grace Caldwell, a.k.a. Merle Raye Finkel, is out to prove that she did not murder her father and stepmother and that she spent 8 years in the juvenile justice prison for no reason. She didn’t care that someone killed Big Mike Finkel, even though he was a sheriff’s deputy and her father. He was a beast, abusing her all the time. In fact, on the night he was killed, she had gotten a terrible beating and had run away. Her motive was written all over her black and blue face. What upset her most was the fact that her stepmother, Allie, was killed by an apparent stray bullet. Whoever did that must pay; Allie was the only person who loved Merle Raye and tried to protect her, often taking beatings that Mike intended for Merle Raye.

Grace, who changed her name to both go on the run and because she felt better when she abandoned the name Finkel, has ruled out all her suspects except one – FBI agent Vincent Harkness. Vince’s partner had been killed in what was being called the Cancer Society Murder case (because it occurred during the Cancer Society Ball) and much of the evidence seemed to lead to Vince’s direction. When Grace searches his home, she finds a diary written by Vince’s wife, Stephanie that says that Stephanie had sex with the murder victim minutes before he was killed. There is also a note that Stephanie had realized that another man she had picked up and had sex with had also died a mysterious death. So now we have motive. Stephanie was a sex addict and was constantly picking up strange men in a bar and then someone was killing them, later. Stephanie thinks it was Vince.  And now, so does Grace.

The hero of the tale is Special Agent Breed Grayhawk. He works with Vince on the special unit assigned to local college campuses to seek out terrorists. Breed has a lot of personal baggage, being a member of the Grayhawk clan. There is a major backstory about the ongoing feud between the Grayhawks and the Blackthornes, a story that has been followed in Johnston’s “Bitter Creek” series. This really has nothing to do with Grace and Breed, except that Vince, in an effort to find her and protect himself, puts out an anonymous tip that Merle Raye is involved in a plot to blow up the National Governor’s Association event which the President is expected to attend. Breed’s cousin Kate is the daughter-in-law of the Governor of Texas and is being manipulated to bring her two boys to the event.  Also in the plot is Breed’s reconciliation with a man who is his father, but was never really a father to him, King Grayhawk.  This whole part of the story is a set-up for the next novel involving Kate and a Texas Ranger named Jack McKinley, who also happens to be part-owner of a ranch with Breed. If you have been following the novels of the series, this is probably a good thing. Since this is my first one, I found much of this plot line distracted from Grace and Breed’s story.

The suspense is high as Breed and Grace end up running from Vince as he and the FBI try to track them down, while Breed tries to prove that Grace is innocent and Vince is a killer.  The romance is high as the electricity jumps off the page when Grace and Breed are involved, from the minute they meet at a bar to the minutes they spend alone in a cabin.

If this were a novel just about the murder mystery, I probably would have given it a five-heart rating. But there is a section in the middle all about Kate and the epilogue is all about her book, which I assume is the next in the series. Never doubt that this book is a page turner. Never doubt that there is some great romance and great suspense inside A Stranger’s Game. It is all the other stuff in it that diminishes the tale for me.  

--Shirley Lyons

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