REVIEW: Toni Anderson’s DARK WATERS and Still, Run Deep

Dark WatersToni Anderson’s Dark Waters is a contemporary romantic suspense novel that took Miss Bates by surprise. She plunged into it without any hope that it would prove more than mediocre. Well, lo and behold, she enjoyed it: agonized over the knuckle-biting bits, cringed at the violence, rooted for the hero and heroine, and basked in the beautiful Canadian West Coast setting. The beauty and danger in nature serve Brent and Anna’s story in a compelling way: adding a twist of what Miss Bates calls “nature-gothic,” whereby natural surroundings support the suspenseful and danger-filled atmosphere. In this case, murky and dangerous water imagery makes this stomach-tightening tale all the more moody and ominous. This is not a ground-breaking book by any means, and it suffers from some typical criticisms leveled against the romantic suspense sub-genre, but Miss Bates would still heartily urge you to read it for the sheer enjoyment of a roller-coaster ride of a thriller and love story well-told. 

Miss Bates used to read a lot more romantic suspense than she currently does, maybe because she made her way back to romance via the cozy mystery, which often contains a token romantic thread. One thing she discovered is that romantic suspense requires a certain “suspension” of belief. It tends to run along more rigidly defined lines and often has a weaker start. Anderson’s Dark Waters runs true to type, but is better written than most and less given to an ethic of vigilante justice; maybe because of its Canadian setting. It was heartening to see the hero be rid of his guns in an act of healing from the claustrophobia, paranoia, and bitterness that came from serving an undeserved twenty-year sentence in the slammer. With all of this in mind, here’s why Anderson’s novel is a darn fine read to get the blood pumping and heart beating.

As Miss Bates has already said, after a dramatic set-up, romantic suspense has to fall into backstory lull to re-instate the suspense and mystery without having to constantly fill in the background of character or storyline. Though Dark Waters follows this route initially, it continues to lay open the hero and heroine in an interesting and adroit manner. Dark Waters opens with Davis Silver, ex-con now accountant, discovering that his present employer, a charitable organization dedicated to raising money for vets, is a front for siphoning money to the ex-military who run it. He posts, by mail not blog!, this incriminating evidence to his daughter, Anna Silver, a schoolteacher, and leaves her a phone message to seek out the only man he trusts to help her with this situation: Brent Carver, an uber-wealthy, reclusive artist and his former cell-mate, now living in a remote part of British Columbia, Canada. Davis Silver is then pushed into an oncoming train by the very men who employed him. Anna seeks out the hunky, surly, protector Brent and they embark on a heart-stopping race against the men who killed Anna’s father and are now after her. The action is intense and will keep your e-reader flashing pages. Truth be told, Miss Bates had the mystery figured out before she hit the 70% point of her e-reader. Read this novel for the mood and compelling hero and heroine, but don’t expect to be challenged by the mystery.

Anderson’s novel succeeds in creating atmosphere and the burgeoning attraction, desire, and love between the likable Brent and Anna. The villain, though over-the-top evil, is not a caricature or cardboard. His is believable nastiness: Lord of the Flies‘s Roger grown up and retired from a military life where he’d indulged his brutality. Anna and Brent come to the suspense with emotional baggage, some of which has to be set up in the first few chapters. Unfortunately, third-person narration that focuses the character’s POV to tell his or her own backstory tends to slow down the narrative. More importantly, it makes the characters’ thought-processes sound unnatural: who recounts one’s own biography to oneself? It sounds peculiar and would have been better served piece-meal in dialogue, but the romantic suspense narrative can’t afford piece-meal: it’s difficult to sustain this eking out of information and still write a car chase. Once Anderson does this initially, she tones-it-down and reveals her characters’ “baggage” in heart-wrenching exchanges … except the reader has already guessed pretty much all of it; this narrative is predictable. On the other hand, Anderson sure does write a great car chase!

Anna and Brent are sexy-as-heck, do good banter, share difficult revelations, own up to their mistakes, have integrity, and don’t spend too much time in the I’m-broken-and-he/she-deserves-so-much-more territory that can be so maddening! They talk through their HEA in a realistic and refreshing way given who they are and at what point in their lives, so that the reader believes in them. Brent spending twenty years in jail and still being able to paint his way to millions is definitely part of the required suspension of belief, but a quibble in light of how sexy he is and what a good man he is. Anna can be commended here as well, even though she’s coming from a difficult place, she recognizes this in him. One of the essential moments of the romance novel is this moment of recognition on the part of hero and heroine: I-see-in-you-your-true-good-and-better-potential self: Anna and Brent’s recognition moments are believable. Anna also makes a final decision about an event in her past (and maturely asks for her love’s help with it) that is important, difficult, and brave.

One of the pleasures of Dark Waters for Miss Bates was Anderson’s use of the central metaphor of water. Water takes on varied significance for the hero and heroine, but its symbolic use put the novel a notch above many action-and-sex-type romantic suspense. Nature imagery reflects the hero and heroine in an interesting and original way. The title’s “dark waters” reflects Anna’s and Brent’s difficult pasts and painful memories. Water is a source of oblivion for Anna as she recounts a painful chapter of her life to Brent. After Brent was released from prison, he returned to his childhood home and crime scene one-and-the-same on the B.C. coast. In both Brent’s and Anna’s case, waves are associated with their new-found, confusing, and out-of-control attraction and love for each other. In Brent’s case, the ocean is a reminder of his freedom from confinement: it is vast and spacious and serves as a solace. In the end, water is cleansing and healing.

In what Miss Bates calls the “respite” chapters necessary to romantic suspense (those chapters wherein the hero and heroine have to take refuge from the baddies in a secluded place and give the author an opportunity to advance their relationship and write some effective, hopefully, love scenes), Anna and Brent are healed by the water. Water helps them slay demons, grow closer, and leads them to some poignant love-making. They are made new by water. When they are separated by circumstance right before the HEA, Brent sits brooding by the ocean that served as his only comfort when he was released from prison: it can’t play that role for him any longer. Brent realizes that his hankering for the ocean was an excuse to isolate himself from others: now the ocean isn’t “enough” because he loves and misses Anna. He hankers for human contact. He also realizes that he wants to find his way back to a relationship with his brother, Finn, and others in his community.

Miss Bates really enjoyed Anderson’s Dark Waters and she thinks you will too, as this romantic suspense novel is indicative of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma Miss Bates hopes to see the Coast Guard hunk, Cyrus Kaine, as the hero of Ms Anderson’s next Canadian-set romantic suspense novel … just a little MissBatesian nudge here. 🙂

Toni Anderson’s Dark Waters releases today, August 6th, and can be found in the usual places and formats. It is published by Montlake Romance. (Great cover, Montlake!) Miss Bates received an ARE from Montlake via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

Do you read romantic suspense, which has been eclipsed by the small-town romance in the contemporary sub-genre? If you do, what are some of your favourites?  (In the same vein as Dark Waters, Miss Bates enjoyed Pamela Clare’s Unlawful Contact.)