Dead End by Mariah Stewart
(Ballantine, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-345-48381-2
Dead End, Mariah Stewart’s first hardcover release, is related to Dead Wrong, Dead Certain and Dead Even, three linked paperbacks that came out this past summer. While technically this novel stands on its own, the main characters’ backstory was provided in the so-called “thrillogy” and many of the secondary characters were the stars of one of the earlier books. For potential readers like myself who are not familiar with the series, Dead End is frequently confusing and less than satisfying.  

Two years ago, FBI profiler Anne Marie McCall lost her fiancé, fellow agent Dylan Shields, in a drug bust gone bad. She has managed to move on with her life, and has a new rewarding relationship with police detective Evan Crosby. However, she and Evan realize that they won’t be able to build a future together until Annie puts closure on her past by making one last attempt to clear up the mysterious circumstances surrounding Dylan’s death.  

Evan is determined to help Annie find some answers, but he has a challenging case on his own turf to handle. Someone is killing innocent girls from wealthy suburban Philadelphia families, and the pressure is on to catch the psycho before he claims another victim. Evan is grateful for the assistance of Annie’s excellent profiler skills, which provide insight into the killer’s identity and motive, while Annie is glad to have a fresh set of eyes looking over Dylan’s files. But both cases have surprising twists, and as Annie keeps digging she realizes that Dylan’s killer was someone very close to him – someone who is desperate enough to kill again to keep his secret.  

A good suspense novel requires engaging, distinctive characters and plot. Neither are present in Dead End. My main reaction while reading was “Who are these people and why should I care?” Annie and Evan are already lovers when the novel begins and there’s no mention of how they met or became involved. Both seem like decent people, but other than the fact that they are hard-working and devoted to their families I’d be hard pressed to remember any details about either of them. There are scads of secondary characters – FBI agents, police detectives, medical examiners, and assorted family members, all of whom appear to be married to FBI agents and police detectives – but because I didn’t read the other Dead novels I needed a scorecard to keep track of them all. We learn early on that one of Dylan’s three cousins played a major role in his death, but since I could barely tell them apart it really didn’t matter to me which one turned out to be the bad seed.  

A suspense novel can still succeed when characters take a backseat to story, if the story is interesting enough. But Stewart throws in every suspense thriller cliché she can think of in lieu of building an intricate plot. We have the creepy serial killer who takes a trophy from his victims, a fictional third world country, child prostitution, the good-guy-turned-bad point of view, and so on. None of it feels fresh or original, and our allegedly brilliant heroine is surprisingly passive at the novel’s climax.  

Mariah Stewart used to write very entertaining contemporary romance novels, but at some point in the past few years she made an ill-advised (in my opinion) switch to romantic suspense. She seems to be garnering decent reviews from other critics, and her books must be selling well since she is releasing another paperback “thrillogy” this Fall. However, unless you read the first three Dead books and want to revisit their characters, Dead End will leave you frustrated and disappointed.  

--Susan Scribner

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