I took a lot of notes as I read this novel and came up with a laundry list of character and plot weaknesses. And you know what? None of them made the novel any less enjoyable. Darkling I Listen (the title refers to the opening line of a Keats poem) kept me turning the pages, day and night. I hadnít realized that Sutcliffe had ventured into contemporary suspense (1999ís Whitehorse was her first foray), but sheís a welcome addition to the genre.
Donít think of Brandon Carlyle as bad - heís just misunderstood. He was once a movie star whose talent and personality led to comparisons with James Dean and Marlon Brando. But his increasingly difficult behavior on the set, coupled with his alcoholism, made directors wary. When he was accused of raping and murdering a porn star, and subsequently served time for manslaughter, his career was destroyed. After his release from prison, Brandon slunk back to his hometown of Ticky Creek, Texas, to live with his beloved Uncle Henry and Aunt Bernice. At age 35, sober and weary, heís trying to determine what to do with the rest of his life.
Thatís where Alyson James finds him. A tabloid reporter whoís angling for the big story that will get her noticed by a respectable newspaper, Alyson doesnít have a high opinion of her subject. After all, her ex-husband, an egomaniac and a jerk, was an actor. But when Brandon catches the reporter spying on him, Alyson invents a whopper of a lie to get closer to her prey. She convinces Brandon that she is writing a biography that will reveal the real man behind the tabloid gossip. For some unfathomable reason - perhaps itís the red thong panties he finds in her purse - Brandon lets her into his life.
Gradually Alyson learns the truth about Brandonís emotional problems (itís all Mommy Dearestís fault, naturally), the manslaughter charges (he can be a jerk but heís not a murdering rapist), as well as the potential danger that heís facing. A fan known only as ďAnticipatingĒ has been stalking the movie star, her letters becoming more and more menacing. Somehow she has learned that he is living in Ticky Creek, and the letters have followed him home. The local sheriff, who hates Brandonís guts, wonít take the threats seriously. But Brandon is worried that something will happen to him - or to someone he loves. And despite her initial wariness, Alyson finds herself in love with the man whom she came to destroy for the sake of her career.
I stopped reading numerous times and snorted over the gaping plot holes. No other journalist could trace Brandon to the town he grew up in? If the Ticky Creek sheriff didnít take the stalker notes seriously, wouldnít the FBI or the Hollywood police? Why would a jaded guy like Brandon let Alyson waltz into his life without doing a thorough background check first? Why is it that every time Alyson tries to tell Brandon the truth, something distracts them?
But as I said, the problems didnít stop me from devouring the 450 pages of small type in just a few days. Sutcliffe is a strong writer who creates a compelling, atmospheric page-turner. Despite the misunderstood bad-boy stereotype, itís easy to fall in love with Brandon, who cares deeply for his uncle and his stroke-impaired aunt and who takes on the bulk of the family farmís chores without complaining. Besides, heís sexy as hell. Alysonís character isnít explored as carefully as Brandonís, but she comes across as a strong woman who isnít intimidated by Brandonís reputation. As Brandon verbally seduces Alyson, the pages smolder, and the consummation is a virtual conflagration. There are only a few love scenes, but the quality - and originality - compensate for the lack of quantity.
The suspense angle is appropriately creepy, as the violence escalates without becoming gratuitous. I was sure I knew the identity of ďAnticipatingĒ fairly early on, but Sutcliffe had a few surprises up her sleeve, and I never would have guessed the plotís ultimate revelation. Thereís even a bit of humor to lighten the mood, including a scene in which the men of Ticky Creek encounter a bathroom condom machine that wonít cooperate with their plans for the evening.
Many of the secondary characters appear at first to be two-dimensional whores or jerks, but Sutcliffe gives them unexpected depth as the plot unfolds. One character, though, is awkwardly inserted; her three-page monologue stops the narrative cold and seems to serve little purpose other than allowing Sutcliffe to honor her grandmother by giving the character the same name.
Darkling I Listen is far from perfect, but it delivers the goods in a satisfyingly suspenseful, erotic package. I suspect Sutcliffeís latest contemporary will find a wide audience, especially among those who enjoy Sandra Brown or Linda Howard.