Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-203264-5
Historical Romance, 2011
Beverly Jenkins’s Night Hawk finally allows the bounty hunter known simply as Preacher to get his turn in the limelight. You may remember Preacher, the bounty hunter that quotes Scriptures as he descends upon his prey like an avenging angel, if you have read The Taming of Jessi Rose and Something Like Love. If not, still, this one works pretty well as a standalone book as it has a self-contained plot and the secondary characters do not bring their baggage from previous books into this one. Unfortunately, the author brings a considerable amount of her own baggage into this story, resulting in a story that is often too preachy for its own good.
Maggie Freeman is a heroine who has fallen on hard times since the death of her father. Moving from town to town and making a living by taking on a series of odd jobs, she seems to be a magnet for trouble. Her latest job – cooking in a whorehouse – comes to an abrupt end when she tries to fend off the advances of the son of the local Godfather figure, and the guy dies when he hits his head against the sharp corner of a table. She finds herself thrown into the sheriff’s custody, but that’s not enough for the father of the dead guy, who wants to see Maggie dead. The sheriff decides to send Maggie to the more secure jail in Kansas City in order to spare her from the lynch mob.
Our hero Ian Vance, who is more popularly known as Preacher the bounty hunter, is on the train that pulls up at Dowd. The train arrives just in time for Ian to see the sheriff trying to protect Maggie from a group of armed men. He comes to the rescue, of course, and the Sheriff happily puts Maggie into our hero’s custody. Ian isn’t too pleased by this development, but he is a responsible fellow, and besides, Kansas City is just the next stop. Alas, events will conspire to make sure that he isn’t going to be able to rid himself of Maggie that easily, and you can guess what happens between the two of them, I’m sure.
There isn’t much of a plot here, as it is pretty much Ian and Maggie going through a series of road trip adventures together. Nonetheless, this road trip is a fun one to follow, as there are plenty of wacky action here. The tone of the story isn’t too serious – it’s not an outright comedy, but the author’s wry sense of humor is present throughout the whole story. Maggie and Ian can exchange sassy one-liners like old school professionals. There is a very nice balance of humor and sobriety here that keeps the whole tale bouncing to the finish line.
Maggie is a typical heroine of this author – strong, intelligent, and passionate. I like her, but she’s almost overshadowed by Ian, who is definitely the more interesting character here. Both he and his mother were disowned by Ian’s Scottish grandfather since Ian is the result of his mother’s affair with a black sailor. Ian has a law degree, but when he moved to America, he realized that his skin color made it impossible for him to make a living as a lawyer. Eventually he ended up joining a band of outlaws, reforming only when he fell in love with a woman he met while robbing a bank. Thanks to her, he discovered the Bible. When Tilda was murdered by an old acquaintance of his, he becomes the bounty hunter known as Preacher, using his faith to strengthen his desire to bring his wife’s murderer to justice and, later, atone for his past sins by upholding the law.
What’s nice here is that the author lets me enjoy Ian’s interesting character without turning him into a cartoon larger than life character. Like Maggie, he is not melodramatic or whiny about life handing him nothing but lemons – he makes an effort to get over these hurdles in his life. Ian is not some over the top player – in fact, he doesn’t seem to have much involvement with women after the death of his wife. He comes off like a normal guy who is good at his job, not a superhero, and this portrayal actually makes Ian far more intriguing to me.
Maggie and various secondary characters in this story, unfortunately, suffer from being the medium for the author to go into history professor mode on me. On one hand, I appreciate how the author does not sugarcoat the less than pleasant aspects of life in 19th century America for the blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans. But I wish the author has been more subtle about this. There are many scenes here a character will happily lecture another character in a manner that reminds me of someone reading aloud from a textbook. When a crusader does it, it’s not so bad, but when everyone else, including whorehouse madams, starts going on the soapbox, things become rather surreal.
Also, I feel that the moment where the author deliberately puts down the hero’s late wife is unnecessary. Do I really need to read about the hero reminiscing about how his late wife is not passionate about lovemaking? That scene is like cold water splashed onto my face. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see anything wrong in the hero loving his late wife as much as he loves the heroine in this book. It’s not like he’s two-timing them, after all! This scene feels too much like a contrived attempt to conform to the formula.
I do like reading Night Hawk but the artificial tone of the more preachy scenes and the occasional unnecessarily formulaic moments set it back a bit from being a truly good book.