I’m not sure what to say about the Last Victim by Karen Robards. I sort of liked the book, and I’m sort of shocked I did, and I’m mad at the book too. I am angry at the heroine. I’m not cool with the hero at all. I haven’t been this conflicted about a book since sixth grade when I snuck a Sandra Brown book and thought the heroine was literally ‘milking’ the hero during the sex scene (the way you would a cow or goat).
I read a lot about serial killers, and when I’m not reading thrillers and romantic suspense, I’m watching shows like Criminal Minds, Wire in the Blood and The Following. My daily serial killer intake is probably higher than four out of five physicians would recommend. So I was pretty sure I’d seen everything the genre had to offer when Robards hit me with a left hook of “what the fuck is happening here?”
I am taking you with me on this ride of crazysauce, so be prepared. Find a calming place to go to. Think of Alexander Skarsgard.
Charlotte Stone witnessed a horrible crime as a teenager. She was at her friend Holly’s house partying and sneaking booze. Charlie happened to be in the bathroom off the basement rec room, puking her guts up, when a killer entered the home and murdered Holly’s family. Charlie heard the screams, saw Holly tied up, and tried to escape only to witness Holly’s mother being killed. She managed to hide until the killer left taking Holly with him. Holly’s body was found a week later, buried in the sand under a boardwalk, a victim of the man known as the Boardwalk Killer.
Fast forward to present day. Now Dr. Charlotte Stone is a psychiatrist who specializes in studying serial killers. In fact she’s at a prison, busy interviewing a man who murdered seven teenage girls, Michael Garland, when the FBI shows up. It seems the Boardwalker Killer, or a copycat, has resurfaced and kidnapped a girl named Bayley Evans. The FBI knows they have less than a week to find her alive, and they need Charlie’s help. Leading the investigation is Agent Tony Bartoli who is all kinds of dreamy.
Charlie isn’t thrilled about being whisked away to relive the worst moment of her entire life. Just as Agent Dreamy convinces her to tag along, the serial killer she was interviewing, Garland, is stabbed by another prisoner. Charlie rushes to help, but Garland bleeds out before they can save him. As Charlie watches Garland die, she sees his spirit or ghost leave his body.
Yup. She sees dead people.
Okay, I can deal with this. Romantic suspense with a hot FBI agent and a paranormal twist? Sure. Sign me up.
Garland is distressed at being dead and there’s this whole scene where Charlie is hiding in the bathroom telling him to go toward the light, and he’s all like, nuh-uh, and I thought “Okay, okay, we’ve established her supernatural ability. Get rid of Garland and we’ll move on to finding the missing girl.”
Except Garland sticks around. He doesn’t want to go toward the light. There is no light. There is a horrible purple fog he calls Spookville where something scary is hunting him…maybe because…you know, he killed seven people.
Charlie tries to ignore Garland and help the FBI out. Did I mention that Garland is hard to ignore because he’s really handsome? He is. She thinks about it a lot. I mean, some terrible people are attractive. Killers are sometimes very charming. I can accept all this, but I found it odd that she reflects on Garland’s ghostly sexiness when Agent Dreamy is right there, being sexy and solving crime and shit.
So they go to a town called Kill Devil Hills where Bayley was abducted and her family was killed. Since Charlie can see the ghosts of the very recently, very violently departed, she sees the spirits of Bayley’s brother and mother. She’s able to talk to them, get some clues, although the FBI is starting to think she’s a kook who talks to herself a lot. Agent Dreamy realizes she’s a psychic and is very accepting of it which I thought was awesome. See? They’re gonna fall in love and have a great life together solving crime.
Based on the information she gleaned from the ghosts before she helped them find the light, Charlie knows that Bayley is likely still alive and the killer is a copycat, too young to be the man who killed Holly’s family.
Meanwhile, the minute Charlie gets a moment to herself, she tries to banish Garland’s pesky ghost. So far he’s been following her around, being all sexy and brooding about being dead. Except the banishing doesn’t work and he gets mad at her for trying to send him to the great beyond. He keeps reappearing during the investigation—at one point naked—all flirty and handsome and demanding Charlie help him stay in this world rather than moving on. He can also see and talk to ghosts and so he helps Charlie figure out what happened to Bayley.
I thought okay, so Garland’s going to be the pesky serial killer ghost who helps her solve crime, thereby atoning, and then he moves on and Charlie and Agent Dreamy get it on. I’m still good for this.
And then. Then it happens.
Then Charlie has a sexy dream about Garland. Except he’s really there because ghosts can enter dreams or some shit like that, and she realizes she’s really attracted to him. Not Agent Dreamy. Nope. She reflects that she should be attracted to Agent Dreamy, but she’s not. She wants Garland.
HE FUCKING KILLED SEVEN PEOPLE!
As a psychiatrist who STUDIES SERIAL KILLERS she should be acutely aware that he can be handsome and charming and everything, and it’s all a big lie because he really just wants to put your severed head in his fridge! She should know! Instead she thinks of him as the proverbial bad boy. The man who killed seven people is not the same as the boy with the tattoo and the motorcycle.
So the whole time that they are chasing this killer, Charlie is struggling with the fact that she had dream-sexytimes with Garland. Who is dead. And a murderer.
Now, to be fair to Robards, Garland denies that he killed those women. Okay, but prisons are filled with “innocent” men. And there was evidence linking him to the crime. I think the author meant to insert doubt as to whether or not Garland was a serial killer, but it wasn’t done well. I had on denial-pants that he was the romantic lead right up until penetration. I kept saying, “Agent Dreamy is going to show up now and make it all better. It’s gonna be okay.”
Despite being Too Stupid to Live, Charlie was an interesting character. She’s shows serious compassion for the ghosts of the departed, helping them cross over, and she’s clearly very smart in every arena except romantic partner selection. I loved Agent Dreamy and his team. The other FBI agents, Buzz and Lena, are great, fleshed-out secondary characters who spar with each other constantly. They clearly have an undercurrent of romantic tension going on too.
And the mystery was well done! It was! I kept turning pages, cheering for the good guys, hoping they found Bayley before it was too late.
If it sounds like I’m justifying why I still liked this book, I am. I wanted to close it once I realized Garland was the hero, not Bartoli, but I couldn’t. I had to see what happened next. And if you forget about the fact that he murdered seven people, Garland is okay. He’s a pretty typical smarmy alpha hero. The problem is, it’s hard to forget he’s a serial killer. Even during the sexytimes I was like “Those are serial killer lips, Charlie! He’s touching you with serial killer lips! Yeah, he’s hung, but that’s a serial killer penis!”
I think overall, Garland was supposed to be a better man than he was, or at least his past was supposed to be more ambiguous. This is the first book in a series, so we don’t get total resolution on all the points that flummoxed me. Had Robards established immediately that there was serious doubt regarding Garland’s conviction, I’d have been down for this. As it was I got all squirmy and big eyed while reading it.
I’m at a loss for how to rate or recommend this book. The writing is great (“High-pitched and shattering [the scream] smashed through the ordinary sounds of the babbling TV and humming air-conditioning and thumping dryer in the next room like an axe through Jell-O.”), and the mystery is spot on. I liked most of the cast immensely. It’s just that the hero may or may not have savagely murdered seven teenage girls. We’re kinda squishy on that right now.
The best I can say is, if you’re going to read this book gird your lines now. And in preparation, I give you this picture of Alexander Skarsgard reading a book while naked. May it serve you well.