Emma Holly doesn’t write your mother’s romances. Nor does she write the sort of erotica your bookstore doesn’t carry. Sex and heat aside, what she does write is divergent enough to preclude many expectations about what an Emma Holly novel is. Her backlist jumps subgenres from Regency vampire, to contemporary werewolf, to Scottish shape-shifter, to steampunk (yes, once and for all that is what The Demon’s Daughter was), to contemporaries that are too erotic for traditional romance and too sweet for hardcore erotica. It is the mixture of envelope pushing sexuality with tenderness and a happily ever after that unites Holly’s work. To her latest contemporary, All U Can Eat, Holly brings her trademark heat to the fictional Pacific Coast town of Six Palms and in the process adds another subgenre to her collection: murder mystery.
The town of Six Palms, like a lot of coastal Orange County, California cities, sits sleepily if, secretively, in the shadow of Los Angeles. The residents think themselves far removed from urban blight and crime until the body of Trish Whittier is discovered behind the All U Can Eat diner. For the diner’s owner, Frankie Smith, a body in her alleyway is the cherry on top of a week which saw her long time boyfriend leave her only to ask his other girlfriend – his other pregnant girlfriend – to marry him. To further complicate matters the murder weapon is found in Frankie’s storeroom, her fingerprints are found on Trish’s person, the ex’s new fiancé, Karen, tells the Chief of Police, Jack West, that she was Frankie’s intended target, and Frankie, despite nursing a broke heart, is seriously hot for Jack.
The structure of All U Can Eat is as expected for a romance set against the unfolding mystery of a murder: the hero is the Chief of Police and the heroine becomes a murder suspect. The intricacy and the intrigue come in with the sex. Early on it seems that Holly intends All U Can Eat to be a polyamorous love story between Frankie, Jack and Mike, a newcomer who is also a suspect in Trish’s death. Jack is the law, in his early forties and hoping for Frankie’s affections; Mike is newly returned from Iraq, still sporting the gang tattoos of his long ago affiliations, and in bed with Frankie before either of them quite knows how it happened. The juxtaposition of the two men seems ripe for story points and delicious conflict of the which-one-will-out-Alpha-the-other variety. Holly, however, chooses not to take the path familiar to her and avoids the obvious threesome in favor of delving into the sexual secrets of Six Palms, thus unraveling the murder one sex act at a time, while allowing Frankie and Jack to come together in traditional one-on-one fashion
Even still, All U Can Eat, is sex soaked. Jack is Frankie’s fifth sexual partner, not in her lifetime, but in the novel. Frankie’s willingness to move onto the next partner while still warm from the last is about as far from the traditional romance heroine as is possible. It’s also one of the few things that is to be expected from Holly. Her heroines like sex, not always in acceptable nice girl ways. In Frankie’s case her actions with three of the five men are well motivated and believable. And, if those actions raise eyebrows, well, they also raise temperatures.
Jack, like many a cop hero before him, has a past in the rough and tumble big city but is now working the much smaller and safer—save for that murder—Six Palms. Where he differs from the cop heroes that have come before him is that Jack has bondage fantasies. He wants to use his cuffs on Frankie, he wants to dominate her. It seems such an easy character trait, such a “Well of course a cop would have this!” peccadillo, and yet it isn’t an easy conclusion for most romances. It is in these “Well, of course” moments that aren’t so “Well, of course” given that no one else is doing them, that Holly shines brightest.
As a whodunit, All U Can Eat is more enjoyable for the unfolding of plot points and the collection of clues than it is for hiding the killer’s identity. Who did it is obvious even in the who-will-do-it-and-who-will-they-do-it-to stage and yet, the story does not suffer for it. In the end, the murder mystery is a nice backdrop, but not the reason to pick up this book. Holly succeeds when she delivers heat filled pages and sexual encounters that are integral to the plot and the characters. All U Can Eat isn’t as daring as Strange Attractions or as surprisingly endearing as Ménage but it does highlight Holly’s willingness not simply to write high octane sex, but to tell stories she hasn’t told before.
You can visit Emma Holly here and purchase this book here and here.