Count to Ten – Karen Rose

count_to_ten_110.jpgPop Quiz:

The best romantic suspense villains exhibit which of the following traits:

  • Shadowy, mushy goals and motivations which make sense only because the author says they do.
  • The ability to hide their thoughts so well that the reader is more often perplexed than not.
  • Violent, sometimes sadomasochistic tendencies that have appeared for no good reason.
  • Clear, well-defined goals, motivation, and conflict.

If you picked A, B, or C, you’re not going to like the rest of this review. Karen Rose’s Count to Ten is not the book for you. And even though I’ve read far too many romantic suspense titles recently that meet the criteria outlined in A – C, my reviewer’s code of ethics prevents me from recommending books with stock characters and dull, pointless violence.

I know it sounds a little…off, but I was looking for a good serial killer story. If not a serial killer, then a thriller that thrilled. Or a suspense story that kept me awake. I found myself getting less picky as time went on. Yeah, the state of romantic suspense is that lame.

Count to Ten is the story of one man’s desire for justice and his single-minded pursuit of his goal. Oh sure, he’s an arsonist with a tendency to rape and kill in order to achieve sexual gratification, but it turns out (according to Rose) that this isn’t abnormal behavior for a guy like him. He’s an killer with a clear plan for achieving inner peace.

This being romantic suspense, a villain simply isn’t enough. Even Hannibal Lecter needed Clarice Starling, or, put another way, all evil all the time isn’t much fun to read. Thus, we require a hero: Lieutenant Reed Solliday, fire marshal and widowed father of a hormonal teenage daughter. We also require a heroine: Detective Mia Mitchell, recently returned to duty after an on-the-job injury. She’s full of guilt and a life full of baggage. Never fear, it’s all good.

We also need sparks. Pun intended. That’s where things start getting good.

Reed is your basic, hard-working nice guy who is trying to understand the monster who replaced his formerly sweet daughter. Though interested in women (always useful in this type of story), he’s not a one-night stand kind of guy…yet he’s not able to move beyond his wife’s death, so he’s okay with the sometimes sexual fling. He believes in soul-mates, and once his died, well, that’s that. Reed is smart and confident, and he believes that psychobabble provides a medical cover for people who simply refuse to get past the fact that life sucks. He knows for a fact that you can have a lousy childhood and still grow up to be a reasonably together member of society.

In her own way, Mia is living proof of his belief system. The daughter of a cop, she’s still reeling from the discovery that her father – a man who liked his drink and used his fists on his family – bore another child, a son who died very young. She makes this discovery at her father’s graveside…just moments before discovering another living sibling: a sister, or so Mia will confirm if she ever tracks the woman down again.

Reed and Mia are thrown together when his arson investigation reveals a murder victim. Suddenly, jurisdiction changes, and they’re teamed up while Mia’s partner recovers from a gunshot wound (see: guilt, post-father death). As a team, they start rocky but soon click. Though this isn’t a procedural novel, per se, Rose reveals her characters as they do their jobs. They have clear tasks and duties. I don’t know how real fire investigators or detectives work, but I sensed that this wasn’t an author who was faking her way through a character’s career path.

As our psycho, Andrew (he spends most of the novel under an assumed name, but I’m being kind and not spoiling that part), works his way toward his goal – destroy the people who let his brother die and put his rage to rest – corpses pile up. You have a college student here, a social worker there, other victims along the way.

The connection between the deaths isn’t readily apparent, and Rose treats the first murder victim almost as a red herring – a nicely done red herring, I might add – that throws the authorities off the scent. The reader, however, isn’t left in the dark; that would be, in my never humble opinion, overly precious as Rose chooses to write from her villain’s point of view as often as other characters. Don’t you just hate it when an author is so intent on keeping the big secret from everyone that she makes the villain’s thoughts mushy and vague? Me too.

I liked that Andrew was very clear in his thinking, his plotting, his goals. Once he decided his course of action, no obstacle could stop him. His view is that those who slow him down are deliberately obstructing his progress. It’s a bit like clearing a field before plowing. It has to be done in order to do the job right.

But Andrew makes mistakes. He’s a smart guy who doesn’t do his homework very well. You know the type. He makes stupid mistakes. In fact, I think one of the few mistakes that Rose makes in this story stemmed from one of these goofs. At the point when the villain is revealed to the reader (you sort of know, you kind of guess, but then you think it could be someone else because there are lots of creepy options), our intrepid detectives buy into his lame story with alacrity. He was spoon-feeding them what they wanted to hear, and I felt their acceptance of his story hit a wrong note.

However, that was just a moment in a very well-done story. One thing that Rose did especially well was juggle a large cast of characters, some of whom, presumably, were from other books (or at least they acted that way; yeah, I could look it up on the Internet, but why waste a good theory with facts?). She made the secondary cast into individuals – quirks, goals, actions, reasons for, wait for it, being in the book.

Yes, you read that right. Secondary characters who serve as more than window dressing. Shocked? I certainly was. The ones who served to draw suspicion from the real villain were largely successful. Except maybe for two individuals from the creepy-crawly boys detention facility; they did, indeed, have their own goals, but they were lightly covered. Picky, picky, picky, that’s me.

The rest of the cast, from Mia’s best friend Dana to her sister, the incarcerated-for-a-crime-she-did-commit Kelsey, to her partner’s angry wife, a strong and stand out in the busy story. Reed’s daughter behaves like a teenager. His sister is a little saccharine, but she’s also direct and solid. Even the cute kid character, and I swear I’ll deny saying this later, didn’t grate. He was so brave and so scared. You just had to love him.

Did I really say that?

Rose carefully revealed her characters. Each scene offered a little bit more, a new facet. The book I read before this one – a book that I swear I hated to pick up – did one of those cool character info dumps. You know what I mean, two people who know each for years stand around yammering about things that two people who know each other for years never need to voice. I was screaming by page three. The book was so bad I almost reviewed it, but Wendy has this thing about actually finishing the books, and I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t.

So I thank Karen Rose for letting her characters reveal themselves through the story. I like that they had guilt and anger and happiness. I liked that Mia thought she could tough out a no-strings affair with Reed, and I liked that both of them were grown-up enough to step on each other’s toes while caring enough to have each other’s backs. I liked that Andrew was indignant that a mere woman was assigned to find him – his hubris is such that he takes it as a personal affront when there’s no way anyone could know that he hates females. He scoffs at the stupidity of the police department. His battle with the other side is personal, very personal. They just don’t know it; that’s the problem with being an anonymous psycho.

Mia and Reed work deliberately to uncover their villain. They take advantage of Andrew’s mistakes, and the breaks in the case come as he grows increasingly desperate to finish his job. They tie the murders together with logic and deliberate effort. The reader isn’t forced to make a giant leap of logic to catch up with the author’s resolution of the mystery. It’s satisfying, the way all the pieces tie up in a neat little conclusion. You, dear reader, will feel sated. I did. No more serial killers for a while.

And, yes, even the title makes perfect sense. I’ll leave it you to find out why.

You can find Karen Rose here. You can buy Count to Ten here or here.