by Kathleen Nance, contemporary (2005)
Leisure, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5491-4

Instead of relying on yet another serial killer to power her first romantic suspense novel, Kathleen Nance chooses to present a story involving hackers. The story of a hacker changing the heroine's records is similar to that of the Sandra Bullock and Jeremy Northam movie The Net, if you've seen it, but there are also murder and romance in Jigsaw.

Daniel Champlain, our hero, is an agent of the National Security Agency specializing in code-breaking (cryptography, if you love your jargons) and computer programming. What I really like about him is that Ms Nance doesn't emphasize that he is a nerd, she just allows Daniel to come off as a natural agent who happens to be more academic than the typical gun-revenge-anger secret agent romance hero. His latest case involves the murder of a computer specialist who conveniently called Daniel right before he died to shriek "Dr Quintera" and "AI" to Daniel. Daniel therefore believes that Dr Lionel Quintera is involved with Steven Chen's murder.

How sexist of him, really, because Steve Chen is obviously referring to Dr Isabella Quintera and the AI she created in her laptop that she named Fran. Bella is Lionel's daughter. Four years ago, she and Daniel had a passionate affair until he had her father charged for falsifying his research data and dragged Bella's reputation through the mud along with her father's. Ouch, that's as ill-mannered as leaving the girlfriend with herpes for memories, no? Bella is stupid enough to still trust her father after he has betrayed her so she isn't so receptive to Daniel's speculation that her father is the member of some vigilante hackers who have brought down Steve Chen for reasons yet to determined. However, someone is obviously out to get Fran and the attempts on her life force Bella to accept Daniel's protection.

For a romantic suspense novel, Jigsaw is a breath of fresh air among the increasingly tepid overkill of serial killers in small town terrorizing psychic heroines and angry sheriffs. It isn't so inventive though because many of the plot elements in Jigsaw is derivative of "hackers gone wild" stories found in books and movies outside the romance genre. There are some bumps in the storyline, especially when Daniel begins to operate in what seems like a bewildering vacuum without the aid of his colleagues in what is obviously a major case. His colleagues show up once in a while over the phone lines but Daniel is entirely on his own here. This is strange because I'm sure that a roping in a few colleagues in what is obviously a big and important agency will have solved many of his hurdles in his investigation quickly. Maybe these people don't want to come to the cold winter climes of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where this story is set in, I suppose? Instead, they even work against Daniel, which I also find perplexing because this agency that is involved with computer espionage falls too easily for the villain's games.

Still, the atmosphere of this story is well-done. The vivid depictions of the cold winter give the story a suitably chilling tone. Daniel and Bella, barring a few obvious contrived blind spots about the bad guys, are generally intelligent characters that talk and listen to each other. The author handles their reunion well without resorting to misunderstandings. And of course, Jigsaw is a story that takes on subject matters rarely found in the genre. It's not as credible as it could have been when it comes to the execution of the storyline but this book nonetheless is a coherent and well-written tale featuring two likable and intelligent characters. The romance doesn't get in the way of the suspense and vice-versa. The science feels credible. A nice bonus comes from the absence of Villain Blabs All scenes in this book. All in all, Jigsaw is a solid story that manages to be different as well as entertaining - a reasonably good debut romantic suspense effort that bodes well for this author's future forays into the subgenre.

Rating: 85

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