Winter Austin
February 2013, Romantic Suspense
Crimson Romance, $4.99, 175 pages
Part of a series

Grade: C-
Sensuality: Kisses

This is my first time reading anything from Crimson Romance, and I have to say it wasn't an entirely auspicious beginning. Relentless has a unique setting, and if it were a house, one might say it has good bones. The basic premise of the story definitely caught my interest, but the execution leaves readers with incomplete characterizations and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.

Five years ago, the Rodeo Sweetheart killer terrorized the Texas rodeo circuit, killing female rodeo riders and leaving a rose with their mutilated bodies. The case went unsolved and things stayed quiet for a time but now it appears that the killer is back. Not only does barrel racer Cody Lewis fit the killer's victim profile with her red hair and blue/green eyes, but she discovers the first body in a trailer. The lead detective, Remy LeBeau, does not exactly hit it off with Cody and his initial interview pretty much turns into an argument with her.

As Remy works the case, his investigation brings him into contact with Cody again and again. Cody competes in the rodeo where the killings have been taking place, she fits the victim profile, various clues and people of interest have connections to her and so on. All of this gives Cody and Remy reason to interact, and the attraction that grows between them actually feels natural. Throughout the book, the serial killer's actions escalate, and this makes sense as well. It's when one gets down to details that things start to fall apart in this book.

First of all, we have the characters. We learn early on that Cody's mother died under suspicious circumstances and Cody pretty much went off the rails after this happened. Her descent into alcohol and an abusive relationship get frequent mention and one can tell that they color her life, but I left this book feeling like I never really got the full story on Cody. Even so, a reader's knowledge of Cody would seem encyclopedic compared to what the authors deigns to share about Remy and some of the other folks in Cody's life. Remy is Cajun and did police work in New Orleans up until Hurricane Katrina. Characters in the book make frequent mention of his relocation to Dallas being mysterious and that his record has been buried so deep that no one can figure out his past history. This all could have been an interesting mystery, and the secret past that appears to haunt Remy could have provided some real conflict in the relationship with Cody - but we never get to go there. Remy lapses into Cajun French periodically and we get hints of memory flashbacks of his, but that's about it. No big reveal; no great unburdening of his soul.

I found Cody's relationship with her best friend similarly frustrating. JC Manning and Cody have been friends since grade school, and he appears as a somewhat overprotective brother figure in her current life. Cody makes frequent mention of JC having certain "hang-ups", but always tells Remy and others that it's not her story to tell. These "hang-ups" obviously play a role in who JC is and why he does some of what he does, but don't get high hopes about the author actually exploring that character either. This book appears to be first in a series, so perhaps some of these unanswered questions will be dealt with in later books. As a reader, I can accept a gradual revelation of backstory and character information, but the very heavy-handed foreshadowing with little payoff that occurs here just didn't work for me.

And then there's the plot itself. Throughout the middle portion of this book, I found myself getting drawn into the hunt for the killer. Some of the scenes involving police had good tension to them, and I found myself trying to put the pieces of puzzle together. I also enjoyed some of the rodeo scenes. Even though this is a very short category book, Austin includes some scenes that show us Cody's life competing and caring for her horses, and that added a lot to the book. However, as things reached their conclusion, the ultimate revelation of the villain was rather unsatisfying. The villain's plot just didn't make a whole lot of sense, and while I can buy that serial killers are often mentally ill, the motivations still just didn't fit.

While this book didn't work for me, the world in which it's set caught my interest. The storytelling needs much more polish before it could become something I'd feel comfortable recommending to readers, though. While this particular book didn't do wonders for me, Crimson does have a number of interesting-sounding titles and I suspect I'll try others from the line.

Note: This book is available from Amazon and other eBook retailers.

-- Lynn Spencer

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