Miss Bates started to read romance after a 30-year hiatus … oh, the waste, the waste! Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain and Dream Man were two of the first romances she read. She loved every alpha-moment of them: loved her heroes’ “guyness” (Howard’s word, not Miss B’s) and her only-seemingly-fragile heroines’ steeliness. What joy and excitement coursed through Miss Bates when she saw that Howard had a new romantic suspense novel coming out, one in a vein she hadn’t written in in years. There was bated breath and sparkles in Miss Bates’s eyes as she flipped open the Kindle to dig into Troublemaker. Yup, she sighed at the opening, classic Howard.
Morgan Yancy is leader of a GO-Team, a paramilitary government group who fixes bad things, goes to bad places and takes out bad guys. Morgan loves his job and, in typical Howard-esque maleness, he’s all about the hyper-masculine: “There was nothing like blowing shit up or getting shot at to give a man a jolt of adrenaline.” We meet Morgan in Washington D.C., home from yet another secret mission, taking some R&R on his fishing boat. But he’s barely gotten his first zzz’s at home when he’s shot and nearly dies: chest wound, cardiac arrest, the works. Axel MacNamara, the Go-Teams’ head, suspects internal leaks and security breaches. As soon as Morgan can be moved, Axel sends him to his ex-stepsister, Isabeau “Bo” Maran, in Hamrickville, West Virginia, to recuperate and hide until they figure out what’s going on, who and why someone wants Morgan dead.
Bo is a woman content with her quiet life. Her attempt at “flipping” a house in Hamrickville backfired and she now lives in it. What she thought Hicksville and her worst nightmare turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her. She acts as administrative Chief of Police (her officers hate paperwork) and carries on a technical writing business on the side. She whittles away at her debts and enjoys a quiet life with the most adorable, smart, loving, and hilarious dog ever created as woman’s best friend, golden retriever Tricks. Bo loves her staid, serene existence. She’s forged friendships in town, lives in the country where Tricks and she can run and play, throw and fetch balls, take long walks, and swim in the lake. Though a city-gal, she loves her small-town support system and Tricks revels in the attention and love of the the townspeople.
She’s home from work when an exhausted man, Morgan Yancy, emerges from his truck. His appearance is shocking: ” … he looked like a ghoul, with a dead white face and sunken eyes ringed with dark circles.” Within minutes, Axel calls Bo and offers her $150 000 to allow Morgan to stay with her. The money will help Bo breathe financially for the first time in years. It’s an incentive, but not as great as the compassion and concern Bo feels for Morgan. Bo is kind and caring. But she’s also delightfully no-nonsense. She accepts her hateful ex-stepbrother’s offer, but mentally makes a commitment to care for this man who looks ready to collapse. She helps him onto the couch and makes him a protein smoothie!
Their routine runs pretty much like this for a while: Morgan sleeps and Bo works and makes sure he doesn’t overdo and eats well. Howard cleverly has them wary around each other. There’s no insta-lust and not even much interest in conversation. There’s a narrative lull as they get used to each other. But there also comes a moment when Bo realizes Morgan’s dangerous world outside of her small town. And, inevitably, Bo also has a physical awareness of Morgan that bodes what he’ll mean to her. It’s quite nicely rendered in the following line: “They were a particularly striking shade of blue, fierce and ice, as if an eagle had been born blue-eyed.” Morgan too notes this tall, thin, doe-eyed woman he lives with. He notes how self-contained and content she is, and how much she loves her dog (who is, admittedly, one of the most lovable rom-pets Miss Bates has ever read, up there with Sophie’s ugly dog in Welcome To Temptation).
Morgan’s revelations about Bo are rueful and funny: “It wasn’t as if she were a warm and fuzzy person who made offering aid seem like nothing, the way his nurses had. She seemed to like her dog much better than she did people … had made it plain where the dog was in the pecking order, and that was above him.” Nevertheless, under her quiet, steadfast care, he heals. Morgan also realizes that Bo is a woman whose serenity is hard-won, who’s had to protect herself: “Bo instinctively retreated behind her mental walls, where she always went when she was in protective mode.” As a protector-warrior, the better Morgan feels, the more interesting Bo becomes. Morgan is a man whose work is everything, but he doesn’t carry any of the angst of combat. He doesn’t have any mental or emotional walls and it’s easy for him to admit his feelings for Bo. She’s kind, she’s strong, she’s beautiful in her own way, she’s loving (Tricks is a testament to that), and she’s funny. She’s everything he could ever want.
Miss Bates enjoyed Howard’s Troublemaker. She thought that Bo was a terrific character, developped and nuanced. Miss B. liked Bo’s independence, vulnerability, and simple, straightforward kindness. She liked how Bo had the townspeople’s respect. Hands down, the best character in the novel, however, is Tricks. Tricks is such fun; he’s reason enough to read the novel. Moreover, Howard can write a love scene like no other. Her loves scenes have the rare rom-gift of being both elegant and earthy. Howard’s dialogue is fun, witty and pithy. Here’s a great moment when Morgan errs in Bo’s eyes. He’s honest and owns up, but she’s angry even while she’s forgiving:
“I’d rather you punch me in the nose and get it over with.”
“You don’t get to choose. I’m pissed, but I’m still deciding how to allocate the pissery.”
“Oh, God.” His arms tightened around her. “Serves me right, falling for a reasonable woman. I’d rather you yell and get it over with.”
Morgan and Bo are nicely realized adult characters. They own to their actions, admit mistakes, and apologize. Their relationship arc, physical and emotional, is a joy to read.
And yet, Miss Bates couldn’t help but feel she was reading Howard without teeth, as if her edgy heroes lost their rough edges. Morgan is strong, handsome, powerful, a protector of the weak, a rescuer of dogs, maidens, and the nation as well. But his characterization is stock. He’s super-warrior with heart, but somewhat one-dimensional. Moreover, the suspense in the romance suspense aspect of Troublemaker is suspended to the novel’s final 10%. The final scenes are good, but there isn’t much to the resolution. In the meanwhile, as Morgan recuperates, and Morgan, Bo, and Tricks fall in love, the small-town denizens’ shenanigans take over as filler. The town’s troubles aren’t all that interesting. The townspeople are small-town idealized and the villain is pretty cardboard. At 400 pages, Troublemaker could’ve used some pruning and nothing would be lost. If you’re a Howard fan, and Miss Bates is (Troublemaker reminded her of Dream Man, except Dream Man has a much better suspense plot), you’ll enjoy Troublemaker. Miss Bates can’t deny that Howard’s still potent brand of strong heroine, steely, though no longer edgy hero, and fine writing kept her reading to the end. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Linda Howard’s Troublemaker offers “real comfort” Emma.
Linda Howard’s Troublemaker is published by William Morrow (HarperCollins Publishers). It was released on May 10th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an Advance Reader’s E-proof from the publisher, via Edelweiss.