Before I Sleep
by Rachel Lee, contemporary (1999)
Warner, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-60653-7

I've read this author's books when she writes funny light-hearted romances under the name Sue Civil-Brown, but boy, as Rachel Lee... I can't believe they are the same person! Forget fun, this book has two of the most dysfunctional, emotionally-stumped, and tortured characters ever. What I wouldn't give to be their psychiatrists - I can go on two vacations every year on their bills alone.

The main focus of this book is the opposition to the death penalty. Five years ago, idealistic and enthusiastic prosecutor Carissa Stover helped convict John William Otis to the electric chair. John is convicted of murdering his foster parents. However, in the five years that pass, Carissa loses her idealism and becomes jaded and fed-up after one too many mishaps in the system. She now hosts a talk show over radio as DJ Carey Justice. However, when she hears that John is to be executed in barely three weeks' time, she gets her doubts about the man's guilt. Especially after an anonymous caller calls in and says that John didn't do it, he did. Already in guilt over sending a killer to the electric chair - why not lifetime imprisonment, she asks herself - she knows what she has to do. She has to find out the truth, and she enlists her old flame Seamus Rourke to help her.

Now let me get out my Prozac bottle while I list out these people's troubles. Seamus is angry with his drunkard of a father who has just moved in. He feels angry and is helpless as he watches Da drinks himself into a stupor. Then there's his immense - believe me when I say immense - guilt over the death of his daughter and his wife's suicide. On Carissa's part, she's no wimp, she serves up enough dose of depression to match Seamus'. She is so fed up and cynical with the justice wheel that she spends her time working herself up into misery as she works, of all things, on a law radio show. This woman is cold, surly, and has a major dose of insecurity and self-doubts. Put these two characters together and it's like watching a time bomb click. You know it's going to be a heck of a depressive ending, but you can't help looking nonetheless.

If that's not enough, then there's John Otis, a gentle man quoting Frost and writing beautiful poems (I can't help feeling he's a caricature of a saintly martyr - he's too perfect), and who suffers from a horrifying childhood. There's sexual abuse - since he was two, and by his father, of all things - and violence - he murdered his father to protect his younger brother. Two is bad, three is Depression Central. Mix and for garnishing, add some hypocritical, back-stabbing radio DJs, some tough-guy cops who always bungle up things, a sympathetic loonybin serial killer whom I pity, a drunkard father whose final turnaround I find unbelievable - and watch as everyone fights to get a place on next week's Oprah. Depression and Its Designs.

I don't read this sort of stuff anymore! It's so bad, the dysfunctional level, that Seamus is still wallowing in self-pity by the last fourth of the book. And Carissa, while slightly lighter in her emotional burdens, is so cold and distant I never can connect with her. As a result, I don't believe the happy ending. These people need another three books to work out their problems, believe me. It reaches a point in the book when I start skipping the quiet and depressing whine-complain happy moments of reflections of these two people for the admittedly thrilling race against time to save Otis.

This book has a Grade A suspense factor, although the villain is easy to identify, because of the skillful writing and handling of fear and tension. But for a book labeled as Romantic Suspense... nah, I'll pass.

Rating: 69

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