Toxic by Carol Ericson
The Particulars: Romantic suspense, 2014, Harlequin Intrigue Noir, Digital only, Not available in print
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I saw the word "noir" and that was enough for me. Harlequin published seven novellas as part of this mini-series for Harlequin Intrigue in late 2014 / early 2015. I restrained myself (for once) and only one-clicked this one. I'm not sure why I chose this one to start with. My guess? The back cover blurb intrigued me and Ericson is a local author.
The Review: I love noir. I love the tone of it, the feel of it, the dubious characters with questionable motives. Heck, I even love the stereotypical femme fatales. Gimme, gimme, gimme. To sink me even further? Ericson sets this story in a backwater burg in Florida. Folks, when it comes to noir there are two quintessential settings when we're talking the US: Los Angeles, and anywhere in southern Florida. This isn't just my opinion, this is fact.
J.P. McCoy was a Chicago cop until his love of booze killed his career. Now sober, and a private investigator, he takes a job that sends him to Crystal Water, Florida. A powerful man is looking for his mistress, who has taken off. He tells J.P. to check out the Seychelles, a bar run by a former Vegas showgirl, Ronnie Tate. That's where Maya was working before she disappeared.
J.P. takes one look at Ronnie and wants to get to know her in all the right (and wrong) ways. He goes in posing as a guy looking for a job, and lucky for him, Ronnie's regular bartender has been unreliable. Now to snoop around for the missing Maya without drawing Ronnie's suspicion.
Ronnie is a classic tough girl with a mysterious past. She's running the bar, not because she enjoys it, but because it's the only thing of semi-value that her much-older husband left her. Everything else went to his kids, who think their much younger stepmother is a gold digging floozy who probably had something to do with their father's death. Lucky for Ronnie the good old boy police chief wants to get in her panties and the medical examiner ruled the death as an accidental overdose. However, these are minor annoyances for Ronnie. Nothing to get excited about. Her sexy new bartender? Now there's something to get excited about it. And it's all banter and flirting and sexy times on the bar (seriously) until a dead body shows up and ruins everything.
This is the sort of story that's all about the style. I'm such an easy mark, the feel of this story, the tone of it, the over-the-top noir-style elements - I was sunk before I even finished the first chapter. Is it a "realistic" read? Look, is any noir realistic? It's over-the-top seedy glamour and I was here for it all day long.
That being said, this is a novella and there are shortcuts. Ericson gets the readers from Point A to Point C while skipping B. There are leaps taken to move the story forward, and in a crime story? That's not necessarily a good thing. I found myself saying, "But wait, how did they find that out?" or "But wait, when did that element come to light?" There's a credible suspense plot here, but it would have benefited from being closer to length of a regular Intrigue word count to pull it off a bit better.
The romance is...well, fast. This felt very much like an erotic romance and the sex is definitely steamier than what one typically finds in the regular Intrigue line. The first sex scene between Ronnie and J.P is a doozy and there's several more encounters that occur over the course of this short novella (Amazon says 124 pages). So if steam is your thing, this one certainly can fog up some glasses.
True to form for a romance, there's a happy ever after. True to form for a noir story, the ending is morally ambiguous. If you're looking for the white picket fence and Ronnie round with child while baking cookies in the kitchen? Yeah, not so much. But it's also not on the level of say, J.P. being a mafia boss or sex trafficker. It's not THAT morally ambiguous.
This is a hard story for me to ultimately assign a grade to because I do see that it's not perfect. There are issues here, mostly in the short word count and shortcuts the author took. But man, I loved reading this. It spoke to that nostalgic reader part of my brain - the girl who sat on the floor of her local small town library and browsed through stacks of mystery and crime novels. Of course I'll be picking up the rest of the books in the Noir series. How could I not?
Final Grade = B-