Carnal Innocence (1991)
Genre: romantic suspense
Sex scenes: mild
Fucking hell. I mean, just ... fucking hell. There are no other words. I saw it coming all along, but just ... I have to say, this is the most twisted NR book of all that I've read - which is a LOT. A lot being 136, according to my Shelfari shelf, which is generally correct considering how anal I am about recording everything that I read.
Carnal Innocence reminded me a lot of Unfinished Business: successful world-class musician returns home to recuperate after a gruelling tour/health scare/intense pressure. What makes Carnal Innocence a different and (IMO) a more exciting read is that it's romantic suspense, as opposed to Unfinished Business' straight contemporary.
Someone is murdering young women in the small town of Innocence (I love just how strange the names of small town America are). Murdering is too tame a word - the girls have been mutilated and with the third murder of Edda-Lou who had only announced two days prior that she was pregnant with Tucker Longstreet's child, Tucker has been bounced up to number-one suspect. To top it all off, the FBI have been called in.
I don't think of Tucker as the typical NR hero. He's a beta, not that there's anything wrong with that, or that NR doesn't have other beta heroes (see Ethan, Inner Harbour; Carter, Vision in White etc) though Tucker does have his alpha moments. He's lazy, trying to quit his excessive smoking and shoulders the financial side of the family business because neither his brother Dwayne - fast becoming an alcoholic like their father - nor his sister Josie - twice-divorced and seems to spend all her time chasing the men of Innocence, whether eligible or not - would do the job properly. Tucker would rather sit than stand, dislikes all violence (a very un-NR-like trait, I thought), drives too fast and knows his way around women. So when Caroline Waverly rejects him like a girl would a pubescent acne-spotted boy, of course Tucker takes it in his stride and sees it as an invitation to keep on trying.
As a NR book, of course it was good. It flowed, it was cute and I do love some of the secondary characters: Della the housekeeper, Cousin Lulu, Cy (Edda-Lou's younger brother) and I would have loved it if Teddy (FBI coroner) had been fleshed out more. The characters, were, perhaps, one of my problems with Carnal Innocence. Some reviews of other NR books complain about an assault of too many POVs on the reader; I've never had a problem wih it, and I didn't here, but IMO, Carnal Innocence had too many characters. Yes, they help contribute to that small-town feeling where everybody-knows-everybody-else's-name, but there were characters whose name I'd read half a dozen times, yet I still didn't know who they were, who they'd cheated on with whom and how they were related to another dozen people in the town. Seriously. Too much.
I did think the book dragged out a bit much. There were lots of bits I enjoyed and wouldn't want to get rid of, but there were too many 'filler' scenes that didn't add anything, especially nearer the end where NR was winding up, but still didn't want to get to the big reveal just yet.
My major issue with Carnal Innocence is the killer: I have no problem with bizarre killers. 'Bizarre' meaning that little old lady who bakes cookies for all the children in the street; or the sweet and gentle schoolteacher with a stammer; characters who you didn't even spare a thought when they were introduced because you were duped by their innocent facade and couldn't think for a moment that they could even swat a fly let alone eviscerate someone. Hell, it took me until Roberts' Holiday in Death (In Death book 7) till I even guessed the killer right, and even then I wasn't absolutely sure. Here, I guessed early and I guessed right. Yet even hearing it, out loud, half the book later from the killer's own lips, I still had a hard time getting my head around it.
MAJOR SPOILERS TO BLOW YOUR MIND. SERIOUSLY: COMPLETE MIND-FUCK
Josie? Really? I get that she was protecting her brothers. I admit that I didn't hook onto the tidbit about Austin Hartinger (complete psycho; father to Edda-Lou and Cy among others; in 'love' with Tucker's mother forever) raping Tucker's mother and linking this with Josie who inherited his similarly psycho genes. There were plenty of other clues that I did manage to latch onto: sleeping with Teddy and Burns (FBI agent) to extract information about the investigation; a desire to see Edda-Lou's body at the morgue (which I had initially discarded as just a disgusting fantasy at the time); giving Tucker an alibi for Edda-Lou's murder for which he was the prime suspect; there were probably loads more that I just didn't get.
Why couldn't I accept it? It's sexist of me, but one reason is because Josie is (duh) a girl. And a girly one at that. NR had led us to believe that a dirty perverted old man (i.e. Austin) was the killer, and so in my naivete, I was convinced it was so. Sure, NR had had female killers before (Rapture in Death, though not physically; Divine Evil though again, it was through others; Ceremony in Death, Visions in Death, Strangers in Death etc) but I still couldn't accept it. I mean (reason #2) this was TUCKER'S SISTER. His own fucking sister. What is the world coming to? Relatives are supposed to be 'goodies' as a rule, right? Sure, Josie was ill; and sure, there's that protection thing again and; with a God-worshipping lunatic (nothing against Christianity or for that matter, any other religion here) for a father, she was entitled to be a little crazy. But crazy enough to tie up women, 'then [pretend she] was [her] father, and [the victim] was [her] mother" - that's some crazily fucked up woman. My mind is still boggling.
Despite all this mind-fuckery, I did like it. It was certainly very different of NR to make the killer a person that we're meant to treat as a 'goodie'* (not that she hasn't done it before). It got a B because although I liked Tucker and Caroline when they were together, it wasn't as 'good' as others that NR has written. I didn't like them as a couple or individually as much as I like other NR characters/couples (for example, Maggie and Rogan, Born in Fire; Margo and Josh, Daring to Dream, Roxy and Luke, Honest Illusions, Serena and Justin, Playing the Odds etc) and so it let down on the overall grade a bit. But still. I did like it - not a favourite, but much better than some others.
* I did have 'like' and 'respect' here, but I don't. Tbh, Josie is a bit of a slut. She reminds me of Margo in Daring to Dream: selfish, self-centred, a little bratty and complete man-magnet, but with an unhealthy dollop of slut. They both love their family, but Margo's much nicer. And not crazy. Definitely a plus.
I usually like to post and use the cover of the version of the book that I've physically read, and this applies to Shelfari too, but this cover is just so so pretty that I can't help but use it. Image courtesy of bookdepository.co.uk