|Before I began this review, I hied myself to TRR’s archives to review our history with Nora Roberts. I discovered that over the years, we have evaluated over 60 of her romances and more than 20 of her Robb mysteries. And in all, she has received a three heart rating (acceptable) a whole ten times. Do the math; 88 percent of her books have received a four or five heart review, this from a rather fussy bunch of readers.
As I pondered affixing my rating to Black Hills, I actually contemplated becoming number eleven. But then I realized that the book kept me reading past my bedtime, that I found both the primary and secondary romances enjoyable, and that Roberts succeeded in sustaining a level of suspense to the end. I also concluded that an “average” Roberts novel is better than most of the other romances out there. So I am recommending the book, though I suggest that those other than her die-hard fans check the book out of the library or wait till the paperback appears.
In Black Hills, Roberts does something that used to be common in romance novels but which has since fallen into disfavor. She provides an extensive backstory for her hero and heroine. We first meet Cooper Sullivan as an unhappy eleven year old who has been shipped off from his home in New York to spend the summer with his grandparents in South Dakota. He is the proverbial duck out of water who pines for his urban life (and especially his trips to Yankee Stadium) and finds little to like on a horse ranch. His attitude begins to change both because of the incredible patience of his grandparent and when he meets Lil Chance, the nine year old daughter of the neighboring ranchers, who plays a mean game of baseball. Coop is also impressed with Lil’s incredible coolness when the two encounter a cougar in the fields. This encounter will have an impact on both, but especially on Lil.
Eight years later, Lil is about to head off for college to major in wildlife management. Over the years, Coop has paid numerous visits to his grandparents and the two have become best friends. She hopes he’ll come this summer and is thrilled when he roars up on a Harley. Friendship turns into romance and the two become lovers. But Coop returns to New York to enter the Police Academy and Lil has her own dream: to begin a wildlife sanctuary on the family’s land.
The story then moves to twelve years later. Lil has become a noted expert in her field and her dream has become a reality. Her romance with Coop had become the victim of distance and the demands of their very different careers. Coop had become a detective and then a private investigator. They had not seen each other in years. Then Coop’s grandfather breaks his leg and he returns to help with the family business. He’s decided to stay and make his life in the Black Hills. And he clearly wants Lil to be part of that life.
The suspense element in the story arises when strange things start happening at Lil’s wildlife sanctuary: a broken camera, a murdered cougar, a ransacked camp, a tiger let loose. It becomes clear that Lil is being stalked by a mad man and Coop’s protective instincts and his investigative skills become key to her safety. But Lil is equally worried about her emotional safety. She never got over Coop, never stopped loving him. How can she let him back into her life? How can she learn to trust him again?
One of the hallmarks of a Roberts novel is that she weaves in a lot of interesting information about whatever activities engage the main characters. In Black Hills, the wildlife sanctuary and the animals, especially the big cats, who find refuge there are important elements in the story. Lil’s work with them and the challenges she faces keeping her dream alive enrich the understanding of her character. And, as is always the case, Roberts is a master at creating fully drawn secondary characters. The romance between Lil’s African American assistant and her parents’ ranch hand is sweetly done.
Black Hills’ success depends on both its romance and its suspense elements. Both are handled effectively. By the end, the reader understands what drove Coop and Lil apart all those years ago and is convinced that they have successfully put the past behind them and can have their happy ending. The suspense centers not on the “who” behind the threat but rather on the “how” he will be stopped. The villain is certainly scary enough to create the necessary suspense.
As I read over my review, I find myself asking why I had any hesitation in recommending Black Hills. Perhaps my expectations of a Roberts’ book are simply so high that anything less than keeper status disappoints. Perhaps the story dragged a bit in the middle. Perhaps the heroine was a bit too flawless. Perhaps the conflict between Coop and Lil was a bit too drawn out.
The fact remains that Nora Roberts is an exceptional storyteller and if Black Hills is not a great book, it certainly provided me with several hours of enjoyment. I really can’t ask for more.