Dear Maggie

Every Waking Moment

Of Noble Birth

Snow Baby

Taking the Heat

Dead Silence by Brenda Novak
(Mira, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7783-2328-5
A line on the third page of Dead Silence gets it off to a bad start, and I was preparing to hunker down and endure in order to finish it so I could write this review. Fortunately, it’s better than my initial impression and features what may be one of the year’s most sympathetic heroines.

Nevertheless, I am driven to repeat what English teachers have preached to students for generations: “Write what you know.” Don’t they ever listen?

Let’s say you have a Southern heroine, presently working in Tennessee but originally from Mississippi and she’s returning to the farm where she grew up after an absence of years, shivering at the sight of the old barn where scary things happened, and her brother challenges her, “Get the hell off my property or I’ll shoot.”

You do not have the heroine say, “What? Ya’ll don’t know your own sister anymore?”

Because as any good Southerner can tell you, “Y’all” is the correct spelling and moreover it’s plural. Unless there’s another sibling standing beside him, the proper word would be “you,” sometimes drawled as though it has two syllables.

The Southern literary tradition of dark family secrets and twisted perversions must be too tempting to resist for even a non-Southern author (Brenda Novak lives in California) who doesn’t know the language.

Grace Montgomery is an assistant district attorney and graduated first in her class at Georgetown Law School, but she’s still unable to shake her “Grinding Gracie” moniker from her days as the high school tramp and her association with her disreputable family. Her widowed mother married the respected Reverend Barker and moved to Stillwater, Mississippi, with her two daughters and one son. The widowed Barker had a daughter Madeline. The blended family lived together on the Reverend’s farm. The townspeople always believed Grace’s mother had married him for his money and treated them with contempt even as they revered the Reverend.

One night years ago Barker disappeared. Suspicions fell on his wife and stepchildren (Madeline was away that night), but Barker was never found and nothing untoward could be proved.

Grace has a boyfriend George who has been pressing her to marry her, but she has problems with intimacy and has been reluctant to commit. She’s returned to Stillwater and rented the house of a deceased elderly friend so that she’ll have time to decide what to do. She quickly meets Teddy, a charming eight-year-old, who offers to mow her lawn and help with the garden.

Kennedy Archer is a banker and running for mayor. His wife and high school sweetheart was killed in an auto accident, and he’s left with his two sons, Teddy and Heath. His mother often watches the boys but is short on patience with the energetic Teddy. Kennedy is in the company of friends when he sees Grace and is embarrassed by the things they say and memories of how she was treated in high school. He is even more uncomfortable when he discovers his son has become attached to her and hears his mother’s critical remarks. Grace remembers admiring Kennedy when he was in high school but is nervous around someone from that period in her life.

Madeline has never lost hope her father will return. Grace cannot reveal what she knows so she sometimes finds herself in a difficult position with Madeline. When Madeline pursues a lead to her father’s disappearance, a chance discovery will give Kennedy insight into Grace’s past and casts a whole new light on what might have happened.

Dead Silence features an admirable and sympathetic heroine and a decent beta hero, but it suffers from a pacing problem. Grace has survived a horrific childhood, and in spite of everything has made a success of her life. Early clues, however, disclose the secrets tormenting the Montgomerys long before the revelations in the book. By that time, it seems almost anticlimactic. (Those readers who are faint of heart should be warned: it’s not pretty.)

There’s a problem with Kennedy being a desirable alternative to George – except for Kennedy’s cute kids, there’s not much difference between them. Kennedy loses some hero credibility when he delays coming to Grace’s defense. Moreover, given Kennedy’s strong involvement with the Stillwater community, Grace should be more reluctant to get into a relationship with him. It’s one thing to revisit the scene of a painful past in order to come to terms with it (she hasn’t even been able to confide in her therapist) – it’s another to move in permanently. Sure the kids are cute but the guy’s mother shows all the warning signs of a potential Mother-in-Law-from-Hell. Grace’s original plan to stay for only three months deserves another chance.

Dead Silence is the first in a new series; Grace’s brother Clay will be the hero in the next book. The suspense over Barker’s disappearance will continue for at least one more installment. That’s an author’s way of saying, “Y’all come back now, y’hear!”

--Lesley Dunlap

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