I am not a romantic suspense fan. It’s true. I’ve said it many times. I’m not a big romantic suspense reader because when I try suspense novels, they let me down. Too much running around in nightgowns, too much violence and not enough romance and sexual tension—or what tension there is gets resolved so quickly that I have to wait for Baddy McBugfuck to meet his or her bloody demise and … meh. I’m not a fan.
If all romantic suspense novels were like Hunt Her Down by Roxanne St. Claire, I would not have any hesitation in reading more of them. St. Claire spanked my fears of weak romance vs. weak suspense, imperiled heroine with no spine vs. overmuscled manmeat toting gun saving her lily white ass, lukewarm villainy vs. overabundance of violence.
It is safe to say that despite my hesitation, I will try any novel with St. Claire’s name on it. Seriously, I’m that impressed. It takes a LOT of skill and sparkle to change my mind to a genre that has left a terrible impression on me. I’ve read too many rom-sus novels where the violence is extensive and clumsy, and serves as a substitute for suspenseful plotting, leaving me with nightmares and an ill stomach.
Hunt Her Down blends the creepy factor, the mystery and the puzzle of good suspense, the romantic tension and emotional tauntness of romance, and action and danger to create a believable balance. That balance is required and through most of the novel, St. Claire nails it. It’s funny and sharp, it’s scary and tense, it’s romantic and sizzlingly sexual. The surrounding characters are real, and even if the situation they’re in is unreal to them, it’s still believable to me.
Maggie Smith has a new life: she runs her late husband’s bar in the Florida Keys, she’s a single mom to her teenage son, Quinn, and she’s doing her best to keep her life above water level. But she has a big secret in her past – fourteen years prior, she’d been a drug smuggler’s girlfriend, while having a fierce affair with a man named Michael Scott – until she witnesses Scott being shot and killed in a raid gone bad. In that same moment, she runs away into the night, leaving everything in her life – which wasn’t much to begin with – behind her.
Dan Gallagher, once upon a time, was Michael Scott, and when the drug lords he put away all those years ago are released from prison, he goes south to find Maggie, once again undercover, once again trying to resist how much he wants her. This time, he is the one who has his well-controlled world blown to pieces.
Maggie is flawed but sensual, aware that she’s hot and even more aware of her responsibilities. She owns her sexuality. She’s tough, but she knows she’s vulnerable – and carries with her regret for how fucked up her life had become when she was younger, equaled by determination to do better by her own son.
I loved her. I loved that she was sexy, I loved that she could own her desires and her flaws, and I loved that she knew she needed help even though she wanted to go hide behind a sand dune until everyone disappeared and forgot about her again.
The hero, Dan, is tough—the type of man who wouldn’t dare show his flaws except when being needled by someone he trusts, or maybe beneath the cover of darkness. He’s undermined a bit by Max, who is obviously a character from a previous novel, because Max always wins in their verbal sparring. Max constantly gets the better of Dan – and if I’d read more of the series I wouldn’t be surprised to see that Max is Dan’s true friend, and therefore one person to whom Dan can endure revealing any vulnerability. Without that knowledge of their past relationship, I thought Dan was undermined by Max.
But aside from that, Dan is one baaaad motherfucker. He is not to be messed with. He’s trained, lethal, dedicated and precise, and aside from one pesky flaw that allows Maggie to pull one over on him in a fantastic scene, he’s the type of hero who has one hand armed with a pistol and the other hand shoving people out of the way. He has that seductive heroic archetype of nobility crossed with furious dedication – mrowr.
But the story rises and sets on Maggie, and she is the crackling life to the narrative. She’s not whimpering or running around in a nightgown. She’s ready to kick ass, take names, or grab her son and hide. She’s brave and trying so hard to make the best of her new life. Maggie has moved from an existence where she had little to live for, and very little self-respect, to a life where she has everything to keep her fighting and every reason to take care of herself and demonstrate her own worth through her actions. Maggie grew up, and grew into someone to be proud of – and both Dan and Maggie have to adjust to the differences in them both between then and now.
Even the surrounding ancillary characters are funny and real:
“Now you have to talk to him. Get your butt over there and tell him you’re a widow.”
Maggie shot her a vile look and scooped the tray full of shots in one hand. “Look, if I want to get a good look at his ass as he runs screaming out the door, I don’t need to mention my dearly departed husband. The teenager at home usually does the trick.”
“The teenager is at his uncle’s fishing for two days…and two nights,” Brandy leaned her whole body over the service bar to make her point. “And the merry widow hasn’t had sex in four years.”
“Four years?” Gumbo Jim slammed down his bottle and let his jaw drop. “Lena, that’s a damn sin. Smitty would’ve wanted you to get laid once in a while. You’re a beautiful woman, for God’s sake.”
Next to Jim, Tommy Sloane inched over and pointed at her. “You know, a hymen can grow back. I read that in Penthouse.”
“A brain can grow back, too, Tommy, so there’s hope for you yet.”
The flaw that kept me from launching this into vowel territory have to do with a section of the book where things are SO easy, it’s insane. Clues fall into hands, bad guys are subdued, and folks who should probably be hiding go running down the middle of the street in sunny daytime—making me cringe and wonder why they were being so careless with their safety.
Even when the hero acknowledges that it was too easy, all that grabbing of clue and besting of bad dude, he lets his suspicions go too easily—and then puts himself and heroine in danger. Despite a truly impressive amount of preparation and skill demonstrated by the hero and by the Bullet Catcher organization, Maggie and Dan end up in a serious amount of danger, with no backup plan for extraction, no safety plan to escape, and remained way too dependent on chance and opportunity in a truly perilous situation. Moreover, there’s a plot hole I still can’t close, no matter how much I think about it.
The plot was intricate and based on the tiniest of details, like Maggie’s bracelets, which jingle on her arms and have been with her since she moved into the drug lord’s home. One piece of detail I would have loved to have more of:
did Dan regret leaving her, letting her go when she saw him shot and killed? Was it as painful for him as it was for her? I’m never sure – and aside from telling her outright, which could easily be seen as suave lies since his ability to tell the truth is a bit in question, we don’t know if Dan walked away from her all those years ago and felt any pain from it.
St. Claire keeps the tension building and escalating, never really resolving the romance, or the suspense. Even after the sexual tension has been smoothed a bit, there’s more. There is one scene that is SO hot and so funny- I can’t even go into it much without revealing its significance but as I said on twitter: OMGWTFFANYOURSELF. It’s deft writing – weaknesses are strengths, strengths are revealed as weaknesses, and the tension is both released and compounded. It is smart and steamy and suspenseful writing at its best.
I’m embarrassed that I’d never read Roxanne St. Claire before. Seriously. Major fail on my part. Her writing is taut, funny, tense and sparking-wire-on-wet-pavement sharp. There’s no wasted descriptions, no constant tagging or excess adjectives. A million little details coalesce to form nuanced, savvy characters who I still think about. The reader doesn’t need to be told anything because the dialogue reveals more than enough. The mundane is never ordinary in her narration. There’s a whole new genre for me to explore with St. Claire’s books as guideposts to quality.