Whose Baby? (2000), Maternal Instinct (2002), With Child (2005), Snowbound (2007) and The Man Behind the Cop (2008): romantic suspense, family-centred, child-parent-focussed, believable problems and dilemmas, and all Janice Kay Johnson category novels Miss Bates read and enjoyed. Johnson goes about the business of producing solid, unassuming romance novels without “strum und drang.” Miss Bates can’t say that the Johnson novels she’s read are huggable-loveable and she’d carry them to a desert isle, except for the contemporary marriage-of-convenience and unusual Whose Baby? Nevertheless, they never fail to leave her thoughtful about the complications life can throw at good, ordinary, fallible people, how to contend with troubles in “battalias,” how to make families out of pretty crappy circumstances, and how to love another person in his/her imperfections. Not a bad feat, even if Miss Bates’ reader heart doesn’t miss a beat reading. Johnson does no less in her latest Harlequin Super-Romance, One Frosty Night. Miss Bates has quibbles, but this is a solid romantic suspense, with more suspense than romance.
Miss Bates appreciates that Johnson writes about the lower-middle-class world Miss B. inhabits: the world of teachers, cops, and small-business owners. (They seem to have some pretty mind-blowing sex … and who’s to say they don’t?) Johnson’s fictional world is small-town America, realistic in its portrayal; Johnson knows the strengths and weaknesses of the small community and is clear-eyed in pointing them out. Small towns are not the anti-thesis to the big city, not safe harbors from urban evils. There be plenty of evil in small towns, Johnson says, and can bring out the worse in their inhabitants. Proximity does NOT make the heart grow fonder. On the other hand, they offer a sense of belonging and the comfort, as well as annoyance, of being known, recognized. Anonymity, says Johnson, is alienating, and the small town, though stifling at times, offers fellowship.
One Frosty Night is set in the fictional town of Crescent Creek. Two of its inhabitants are our hero, school principal and single-dad, Ben Horvik, and heroine, small-business manager, Olivia Bowen. Twin-Peakian circumstances open the novel (no cherry pie, though). Miss Bates enjoyed how Johnson used an incident, not big headline, from daily news to build her plot and test her characters, showing how people’s true personalities are highlighted by unusual and stressful circumstances. A dead teen-age girl is found in the forest abutting Crescent Creek. She goes unidentified and unclaimed; when the novel opens, Ben has collected money from the townspeople and given her a funeral and burial.
We learn that Ben returned to his home town to take the position of HS principal and bring up his step-son, Carson, with the help of his family. He hopes to win back his high school sweetheart, Olivia, while acknowledging he hurt her when he returned from college to break up with her sixteen years ago. Olivia has also returned to Crescent Creek: to nurse her father through illness, support her mother, and manage the family hardware store. Though she’s attracted to Ben, she holds no illusions that he’d be interested in her. Her interactions with him are cool, polite, and distant. He doesn’t know how to make it up to her and has taken to contriving “chance” meetings. Her father’s death and tense relationship with her mother give him a chance to offer a comforting, masculine shoulder and friendly, sympathetic ear.
Olivia’s estrangement from her mother and relative newness to her hometown lead her to confide in Ben. Ben is out-of-this-world happy with this turn of events. Except there be trouble in paradise: teen-age Carson, star basketball player, is skittish: is maybe bullied at school, maybe harboring secrets from his dad. Crescent Creek HS is rife with tension and rumour, as only adolescents can foment. Olivia discovers that her mother’s anger and parents’ estrangement before her father’s death may be explained by the discovery of a long-lost sixteen-year-old sister, the result of her father’s infidelity. Carson’s troubles and Olivia’s discoveries both point to the mysterious girl in the forest: what does Carson know? Why is he guilt-ridden? Could she be Olivia’s long-lost sister? Ben’s suspicions grow. Olivia is ever more confused and lonely. The town is on edge. The girl’s death and the mystery that surrounds it bring out town secrets, pettiness, and cruelties.
One Frosty Night‘s fun cover is deceptive. After an overnight snowstorm, Ben and Carson clear Olivia and her mother’s, Marian’s, driveway. They share coffee and cake and go sledding. This is the fulfillment of Ben’s hopes and dreams: he and Olivia start to date again. Their romance develops slowly and nicely: Olivia has doubts, feels less than feminine because she’s tall and more interested in hardware than feminine gewgaws. Ben is reassuring and loving, but she’s still shy of feelings, seeing their relationship as “just sex.” Miss Bates didn’t really enjoy this questioning of what makes a woman “feminine”: Ben makes all the politically correct noises. At the same time, with the HS boys, including Carson and star basketball players, involved in a “kegger” and girls who “put out” and Ben’s thoughts of his own disastrous marriage to drug-addicted, “slutty,” possibly mentally ill, Melanie, sat like a craw in Miss Bates’ throat. Johnson always brings these conflations back from the brink: consistently redeems her characters and their sentiments, or the implications of her narrative, but they stayed with Miss Bates, poking at her enjoyment.
If a reader is interested in the “romance” part of romantic suspense, then One Frosty Night may disappoint. The mystery behind Jane Doe’s death, Carson as possible witness, the chance she might be Olivia’s long-lost sister, questions and strained relationships the incident highlights in the town: all take precedence over the romance. Moreover, parent-child relationships also figure more prominently: Ben and Carson’s working through to a place of honesty and love; Olivia and Marian’s estrangement after the father’s betrayal, secrets kept and secrets revealed are more important that the burgeoning relationship between Ben and Olivia.
The solution to the mystery of the dead girl is trite and dismissive. The characterization of the townspeople as gossip and pettiness and strained relationships emerge is well done. Johnson is not a master of prose: her writing is competent and clear, but it is not elegant, or lyrical. There is an aggression and rawness to the very few sex scenes that surprised Miss Bates (but then Miss B. is reticent in her tastes). Ben and Olivia are complex and interesting people. The ways in which they work out their relationships are sympathetic and understandable. Their HEA is utterly halcyon, as HEAs are wont to be. And Ben’s request of the town near the end of the novel is a terrific scene. (Ben and Olivia’s shared Christmas Eve and Day serve as a respite from the tension of their family relationships and the continued oppressive atmosphere surrounding that poor girl’s death.) In Janice Kay Johnson’s One Frosty Night, Miss Bates found a romance that is, as the heroine sees herself, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Janice Kay Johnson’s Super-Romance, One Frosty Night, published by Harlequin, has been available since November 4th, in your preferred formats, at the usual vendors.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Have you read any Johnson? Which titles? How did you respond to them?