Lady Fortune

Prince of Magic

The Right Man

Shadow Lover

Shadows at Sunset

The Widow

Wild Thing

Still Lake by Anne Stuart
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-908-0
Anne Stuart has achieved a solid reputation as an author who can deliver a dark-edged tale whether Gothic, historical, or romantic suspense. However, in Still Lake she’s lost her edge.

Sophie Davis has moved from New York to Colby, Vermont, with her mother Grace and teenaged half-sister Marthe to run a bed-and-breakfast inn. The inn has been closed for twenty years since the murder of three employees, all teenaged girls. Sophie has written a Martha Stewart-type newspaper column and has seized this opportunity to practice what she writes.

A young drifter Thomas Ingram Griffin was convicted of the murder of one of the girls, but after five years in prison, the conviction was overturned on a technicality. Griffin has no memories of that night whatsoever; he awakened covered with blood but had spent the night in an alcohol-induced haze. He has decided it is time to face his past. Assuming the name John Smith (how original!), he has rented a ramshackle cottage near Sophie’s inn.

Sophie has spent the summer readying the inn. She has received precious little help from her mother who is manifesting symptoms of dementia. Sophie relies on the kindly old country doctor Doc to oversee her mother’s care. Her half-sister Marty, whom Sophie has raised since the death of the girl’s parents, is an unruly, rebellious teen who resents having been dragged to the middle of nowhere.

Sophie had hopes of buying the cottage John Smith is renting to expand the inn but now has added worries that Marty will be attracted to the rugged stranger and he to her. Sophie has buried her sensuality in work and unstinting duty to her family, but John Smith is proving to be an unexpected temptation. Griffin finds the generously round Sophie an unexpected distraction from his goals. Long-buried secrets will be unearthed in the coming weeks.

There are so many holes in this story, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Griffin is a one-dimensional character straight from Heroes R Us. He was an aimless dropout with no prospects twenty years earlier, but now he’s a successful lawyer with a killer Jaguar automobile. Of course, he has a hunky body which spikes Sophie’s dormant hormones. Add it all up and it equals hero. What’s lacking are some personal details that might give some depth to his character.

He was in his late teens and uneducated when convicted, but he studied law in prison. There’s no mention of his earning a college degree or whether he attended an accredited law school. Five years in the prison library isn’t going to get him a J.D. He’s supposedly come to Vermont to learn the truth about the murders, but he spends most of his time lolling around the place just like any summer tourist with nothing but time on his hands.

The romance between Sophie and Griffin seems the result of proximity and convenience more than great passion. The intimate scenes are sex scenes rather than love scenes. There is, however, a more realistic feeling in those scenes than many others.

Sophie is the rare heroine who isn’t reed thin and model gorgeous. She has devoted herself to playing doormat for her unappreciative family for years so she’s still a virgin ... at age thirty! She’s also more than a little naive if she believes that taking a teenager out of the big city and plopping her in the country is going to go over well.

Even so, Marty is a real piece of work. Sophie worries that Marty might find John Smith irresistible because it seems that Marty has the morals of an alley cat. Sophie doesn’t take into consideration that Smith is more than twenty years Marty’s senior and she might think him too old or that he might find Marty with her punk look less than yummy. But then Sophie does and thinks a number of things that come close to TSTL territory.

She may get that from her mother. There are hints all the way through that Grace may be sharper than she acts, but the ultimate explanation for her behavior is really far-fetched and one of the weakest parts of the plot.

As for the murder mystery, I figured it out early in the book and wondered how the town residents could be so blind all those years. Colby is a small town where everyone knows everyone else, but amazingly no one seems to have noticed that there’s been a serial killer at work there for more than two decades. The killer has used a variety of killing methods, but you’d think that sooner or later someone would notice a lot of girls in their teens are ending up in the town’s cemeteries and wonder if there’s something suspicious going on. Not to mention that the killer has been putting a certain type of flower on their graves. Now there’s a signature for you.

The publisher is marketing Still Lake as romantic suspense, but there’s not much romance in it and less suspense. At a quarter of the way through I was ready to toss it aside and move on to something more entertaining and persevered only in order to review it. It did pick up slightly midway through, but it never came alive. Readers who are looking for a story about a woman finding herself in a bucolic New England setting would be better off seeking out a book by Barbara Delinsky.

--Lesley Dunlap

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