Payback by R. J. Kaiser
(Mira, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-460-7
Payback is a romantic thriller that is neither very romantic nor very thrilling, although it displays a few brief moments of each. It is fast-paced and would be decent beach reading if it weren't almost November. The main flaw was the author's decision to devote a large number of pages to the story's cardboard villains.

The novel begins as Stephanie Reymond flees from her California home, pursued by a variety of shady characters. Stephanie has just discovered that her husband was an unfaithful jerk who was using her inheritance to finance a disreputable investment. Before she has a chance to confront him, he is killed, along with his lover who also happens to be Stephanie's half-sister. When Stephanie's best friend tries to help, she too is murdered.

Stephanie is pursued straight to St. Thomas by one of the menacing bad guys. She is desperate to charter a boat to get her off the island and finds that the only skipper available immediately is Jack Kidwell, a womanizing drunk. Offered enough money, Jack is eager to help out. The two find themselves trying to outsmart and outrun the powerful villains long enough for Stephanie to figure out how to get her hands on millions of dollars invested by her husband. During their adventure, Jack surprises himself by acting honorably and soberly. Stephanie surprises herself by taking risks and braving danger. She finds herself attracted to Jack, but wonders if he is really on the level with her or if he might sell her out to the crooks if offered enough money.

Parts of the story are fun. Jack is a strong hero, akin to Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. He knows he's made a mess of his life and valiantly tries to behave honorably to redeem himself. Stephanie changes from a timid society matron to a daring adventuress who can hold a villain at gunpoint and crack jokes about it afterward. While it's gratifying to see Stephanie take control of her life, the novel's climax features several examples of deus ex machina (or deus ex machine gun), where the day is saved through bizarre actions of other characters, leaving her virtually passive through the entire confrontation.

Written by a man (who, I believe, is the husband of romance novelist Janice Kaiser), the novel's sex scenes are a little on the coarse side, although the rest of the dynamics between Stephanie and Jack are well-developed. While reading the "f-word" during a love scene doesn't drive me wild with desire, I didn't mind too much.

I really was annoyed, however, by the many scenes detailing the putrid behavior of the head honcho bad guy, his lecherous son, trashy daughter-in-law and downright creepy nephew. The novel's back cover publicity has the audacity to compare Kaiser to Elmore Leonard, a much better author who is popular, in part, because his bad guys are so multidimensional and interesting. These villains are just repugnant. After reading a six-page encounter between the lecherous son and a native girl who reluctantly prostitutes herself, I skipped over the rest of the villainous details.

Payback's writing style is straightforward and unremarkable. In this weighty volume, the bad outweighed the good, and I suspect that if you purchase this book you might demand of the bookseller, "Pay me back! Pay me back!"

--Susan Scribner

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