Berkley Sensation, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19657-7
Romantic Suspense, 2004
Were not for the author exploiting the snuff film element in her story to the point of gratuitous skankiness, Fade to Red is a formulaic romantic suspense story featuring a tepid and underdeveloped romance, some overwrought writing, and stock tortured characters. I’m drawn to the story because I’m interested in seeing how Ms Castillo will tackle the infamous myth of the snuff film industry, which is always whispered about but never proven to exist apart a few exploitative films like Cannibal Holocaust. But even in the case of these films, only animals are slaughtered on camera, never the actors. Yes, that’s what a “snuff film” is, if you’re not aware of what it means: a film where creatures or people are killed on camera for the morbid, even sexual enjoyment of the audience.
If you are feeling queasy about the subject matter already after reading the previous paragraph and are thinking twice about tackling this book, by all means follow your instincts because this book is very generous in sharing everything the author has researched on the matter with the reader. But if you want to go ahead and check this book out, hey, at least Fade to Red isn’t like every other typical serial killer romantic suspense out there. The ick factor is there, but when it comes to terrifying and delivering chills to the reader, ick is sometimes good.
It is a pity, therefore, that the characters in this book are straight out of central casting. The heroine Lindsey Metcalfe is looking for her missing sister Traci. Traci calls Lindsey at the start of the story, sounding desperately in need of help, and Lindsey drops everything and rushes to Seattle to help Traci. Lindsey is a typical romantic suspense damsel-in-distress: she has been sexually abused by her stepfather and she lives in guilt because she went to college and left Traci at the mercy of this stepfather. I’m sure it comes to nobody’s surprise that Lindsey is a complete mess. Meanwhile, Lindsey finds an ally in Michael Striker, an ex-cop who is now a private investigator. Michael is yet another ex-cop living under the guilt of allowing his partner to get killed. Michael avenges his late partner but he isn’t allowed to get away with his brutal vigilante ways. He is awaiting trial when Lindsey meets him.
Lindsey and Michael’s relationship is predictable in that the author resorts to typical contrivances other romantic suspense authors do when they come up with very average books: a bad start, lots of tedious whining about guilt and angst, an unexpected kiss, a love scene or two, and ta-da! It’s love, people! It is hard for me to believe that these two emotional basketcases will have a happily ever after when they spend the whole story justifying the continuous existence of Prozac. Along the way I also encounter stereotypical secondary characters and cartoonish villains. The whole story is narrated in a style that’s more overwrought than suspenseful.
She rode the agony, felt it tear through her like a thousand tiny blades wakening every nerve with a ferocity that left her breathless.
The thing is, the problems of this book – underdeveloped characters, weak romance, overwrought writing mistaken as chilling storytelling – are textbook examples of everything that is wrong with a typical average romantic suspense novel. It also features textbook cases of favorite plot elements such as exploitative scenes of women getting hurt to evoke chills, stereotypical depictions of guilt, and overused psychological baggage, all of these inserted without actually succeeding in delivering genuine suspense and chills.
The only thing that doesn’t keep me from yawning is the snuff film industry backdrop. As the two stereotypes Moan and Whine burrow deeper into the snuff film underworld to find Traci, the author ramps up the violence, skankiness, and even gore to the point that I find my attentions engaged in a macabre “I need to know what depravity will be thrown my way next” manner. Which brings me to my initial point then: take away the snuff backdrop and Fade to Red will be just another very average and formulaic romantic suspense novel in the market. This is one case where exploitation of an unpleasant subject matter actually works to cover up the many weaknesses of the story. I’d probably feel less unclean for enjoying the story if it’s better written.