When Night Falls by Cait London
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-000180-1
The cover of this romantic suspense novel describes it as a “bold new direction for Cait London.” Unfortunately the author’s compass fails her at some key moments, leaving the reader to wonder where exactly she’s trying to take us.

Uma Thornton has lived in Madrid, Oklahoma, all of her 36 years. She has known sadness, even tragedy, from the crib death of her 3-month-old daughter and subsequent divorce from her husband, to the drive-by shooting death of her friend Lauren just a year earlier. Uma and Lauren, together with Pearl, an insecure socialite, and Shelly, the unwed mother of a teenage daughter, have been a closely-knit group since childhood and all were present at Lauren’s shocking murder.

Although Uma is a generous and caring person, liked and respected in the small town, she has lived inside an emotional cocoon since her daughter’s death. Her ex-husband, who still loves her, continues to hope for reconciliation.

Enter Mitchell Warren. Mitchell has returned to Madrid, nearly 20 years after the tragic death of his bitter, alcoholic father in the fire that burned down the house and barn on their meager ranch. “The town” thinks the Warrens torched the place for the insurance, but Warren suspects that a jealous husband committed arson in the mistaken belief that Warren was involved with his wife.

Warren’s return, vaguely described as a desire to “steep himself in the town and see if the past was as bitter as he remembered,” seems to stir up several hornet’s nests. “The town” thought he was bad news as a kid and isn’t happy to have him back, believing that the money he used to buy Lauren’s empty house, and the small ranch and garage that his father owned, must have come from some nefarious source. He hides the fact that he’s just left a very successful career as a “top executive” with a national building supply chain.

“The town” is no happier when his brother Roman arrives on his heels, riding a Harley and looking like trouble. When the disturbing events set in motion by Lauren’s death start to escalate, “the town” blames the Warren brothers. Well, most of the town. Uma finds herself strongly attracted to the brooding Mitchell, and Roman realizes he is the father of Shelly’s daughter and the reason Shelly never married.

This book succeeds as well as it does is because Ms. London has not left the romance out of her romantic suspense. I liked the edginess of Mitchell and Uma’s encounters. He’s got a lot of dark places, but with the sense there was a decent guy underneath. She’s a nice person, but with surprising inner strength; Uma never lets Mitchell push her around. As a result, their relationship has a nice grownup energy. The one real failure was their first sexual encounter. The intensity builds nicely - then suddenly the narrative jumps to the aftermath, and Mitchell’s comment: “Well, that was interesting.” Talk about a mood-killer. It gets better although, unlike much romantic suspense, the sex is surprisingly non-explicit.

If anything, the secondary romance between Roman and Shelly has even more interest and tension, with Shelly’s difficult daughter complicating the mix.

Unfortunately, the suspense doesn’t work at all. There are many good elements, but everybody’s motivations are much too vague for far too long to be compelling and there were too many loose ends. This includes the villain, who is “going to make the town pay” for something. (“The town” seems to have a lot to answer for.) Our contact with the culprit during most of the book is through that tired suspense convention of showing us the killer’s thoughts without telling us who it is. I can’t tell you what it was about the final revelation that nearly turned this book into a wall-banger for me, but I thought the author cheated egregiously in the clues we were given.

Writing really good romance is something Cait London knows how to do. Writing really good suspense is a completely different challenge, and one that, in my opinion, she has not mastered. I thought this book was on the right track, though, and I hope she tries again.

--Judi McKee

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