Ghost Moon

Heartbreaker

Hunter's Moon

The Midnight Hour

The Senator's Wife

Walking After Midnight

 
Paradise County by Karen Robards
(Pocket, $24.95, R) ISBN 0-671-78645-8
**
I didn’t enjoy Karen Robards’ new romantic suspense novel, which sort of surprised me. I generally enjoy stories set in the world of thoroughbred racing. I liked the hero and the heroine. I found the family dynamics interesting. And I don’t even usually mind serial killers. But Paradise County left me dissatisfied.

Was it the nightmare I had after making the acquaintance of the nastiest, creepiest villain I have ever come across? Was it the almost pornographic portrayal of his perversion? I’m sure this was part of it. Maybe even most of it. But I also found weaknesses in the telling of the tale.

First, a bit about the plot. The story opens when Joe Welch finds a body in the horse barn of the Kentucky thoroughbred racing stable he manages. Charles Haywood, the billionaire owner of the farm lies dead, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But we know he has been murdered; we watch the “predator” as he goes out in search of more rewarding prey, to satisfy his horrible, twisted needs.

Several weeks later, Haywood’s daughter Alexandra arrives at Whistledown Farm. She has come to tell Joe that he is being dismissed and that before he leaves the Haywood employ, he is to sell off all the horses. Joe isn’t about to take this laying down. He has built Whistledown to the brink of greatness; he’s not going to let it go without a fight, just because some rich b**ch says so. He’s got a guaranteed employment contract.

But Alex really feels that she has no choice. The verdict of suicide was based on the fact that her father’s health care empire was facing problems. His death brought the whole thing crashing down. Alex has spent the weeks since his death liquidating his holdings. The Haywoods are bankrupt. (Which is one problem I have with the story. The collapse and bankruptcy of a major corporation would not have been so precipitous, nor would the corporate problems have left Alex and her sister destitute. It doesn’t generally work that way.)

Alex doesn’t like Joe much and the feeling is mutual. He calls her “Princess;” she thinks is an obnoxious jerk. Moreover, she is engaged to another man, who conveniently calls her up to inform her that he has married someone else, another rich man’s daughter. When her younger sister arrives to cushion this blow, another complication is added to Alex’s life. Neely is the epitome of a wild teenager.

Then, Alex awakens, convinced there is someone in her room. As she rises to see what is happening, she is struck. So she and Neely flee for refuge to the manager’s house. Suddenly, Joe appears in a whole new light and his attitude toward Alex changes as well. Was there really someone in the house? Well, of course, we know that the “predator” is on the prowl.

Alex decides to stay in Kentucky for a while; the newspapers have dug up more dirt on her father and she wants to hide away. Thus, she and Joe become better acquainted. Then they become much better acquainted. But, a romance between a horse trainer and a “Princess” is bound to be difficult, especially when Neely seems determined to lead Joe’s teenage son astray.

Robards creates an interesting hero and heroine. Alex has suffered innumerable blows and has been sleepwalking through life until Joe appears on the scene. Joe is a single dad who has been raising his two sons and his daughter since his wife walked out on the family years ago. He also has to contend with his alcoholic father. If Alex is a princess, Joe is clearly a prince. Their romance, while of the “lightening strikes” variety, is the best thing about the book.

I suppose the suspense is effective as well. It’s been a long time since a character in a book gave me bad dreams. Robards certainly created an aura of danger. And when Neely and Eli, Joe’s son, disappear, things really get nasty.

My biggest problems with Paradise County (other than the villain) was the ending. It seemed incredibly rushed and unlikely. That the predator could have murdered twenty-two people over the course of the years in one area without anyone noticing did seem somewhat improbable, even if he chose his victims from those who were just passing through.

Some may think my two-heart rating is a bit harsh. After all, if the author’s purpose was to scare her readers, then she succeeded. But two hearts means “Think Twice.” If after thinking twice, you decide you too want to lose a night’s sleep, then you should definitely give Paradise County a try.

--Jean Mason


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