Avenging Angel, by Justine Dare

13 Jan

Avenging AngelAvenging Angel, by Justine Dare

I am a fan of Justine Dare/Justine Davis, and have been for well over a decade. Under her Dare pseudonym, she has only published eight full length novels, the Hawk trilogy and five romantic suspense novels, of which this is one. I confess that, as much as I enjoy her shorter works for Harlequin, I have always wished she had had the chance to write more of the longer works. They are all really well written, with engaging characters and interesting, complex plotting.

Originally published in 2002, Avenging Angel is refreshing in many ways. Its main premise is that a serial killer is targeting abusive husbands/boyfriends, whose victims are all current or past residents at Rachel’s House, a private battered women’s shelter.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s the back cover blurb:

The newspapers have dubbed him the Avenger. But to members of the battered women’s shelter Rachel’s House, he is an angel. What no one disputes, however, is that a serial killer is systematically slaying abusers—and that the victims of each of the murdered men have all been residents of Rachel’s House.

As the shelter’s devoted director, Regan Keller has access to records on every case of abuse. She also has the kind of caring heart that makes each case personal. But these things only draw attention to Regan, making her toe focus of two men. One is a new worker at the shelter who shares her passion—and her bed—but not his darkest secret. The other is a police detective who believes Regan herself is the killer.

Blurb sucks on every level, frankly. About only thing right in it is that the victims are connected to Rachel’s House via records Regan has access to. After that…meh.

The novel runs on two levels, suspense and romance; each has a main and secondary plots. In both cases, the main plot, is resolved (and very satisfactory, from the suspense angle) and a second plot, which…not so much.

While I liked both protagonists and how they are written, I didn’t see a lot of change in either Alex or Regan. They are both good people to begin with, and pretty self-aware too, so there is little growth for either of them in the course of the story.

But here I’m going off again…

So we have a serial killer who is drawing his victims out of a very limited pool: men who have victimized residents of Rachel’s House. This small, private shelter is funded entirely by Court Corporation and is something of a pet project for Lillian Court, head of the family and—presumably, as it’s never stated—CEO of the company. Worried that both Regan and the House’s residents may be harassed by the cops during the investigation, Mrs Court sends the company’s main troubleshooter, and her only son, to keep an eye on things.

However, both to keep things as low key as possible, and to give him closer access to both Regan and the residents of the shelter, she directs him to go undercover, so that Alexander Court becomes Alex Edwards, roofer and man of odd jobs. This lie, obviously, sets the stage for the main conflict between our main protagonists.

Regan has a difficult past, which has very obviously shaped her present. An only child, her mother died when she was very young, and her father is killed in the line of duty when she’s only ten. About a decade later Rachel, her best friend of more than a dozen years, is killed by her abusive boyfriend, who arranges for Regan to find the body. She is driven to help victims of domestic abuse, particularly women, to the point where her entire life revolves around Rachel’s house.

Regan’s devotion and vigilance are indeed necessary—many of the women living at the shelter, while on the road to recovering themselves after years of abuse, are still actively at risk. Abusers can remain fixated on their victims years after the relationship has ended, though it’s the first year to eighteen months that see the most actual murders. To protect the House’s residents, the address is kept secret, and Regan takes circuitous routes to and from the public office front, every single day. Only men who have been thoroughly vetted by CourtCorp are every allowed on the premises, and even then, it’s often on very limited basis. It is a very isolating existence.

This is where Alex’s lack of familiarity with abuse in general comes in handy—it’s through him that Regan realizes just how much she has become a hostage to her mission. And make no mistake, it is a mission. Just because it’s a small, privately funded operation (I believe the book mentions a max of eight women living in the house at any given time), it doesn’t make it any less important.

Alex is a good guy in a general decent sort of way. Comes from privilege and knows it, but has grown up aware that he belongs to a tiny, rarefied minority. This awareness translates into a feeling of responsibility towards other people, who are not likely to be as lucky. While working as troubleshooter for CourtCorp, he often comes in contact with the less pleasant aspects of life, and has been in risky situations often enough to learn to handle himself. He doesn’t know a lot about the psychology of abusive relationships, but he is not judgemental of what he doesn’t understand simply because it’s outside of his own life experience. Rather, he is open and willing to bow to Regan’s expertise in this particular field.

They are, obviously, immediately attracted to each other, and soon become close. Regan, living in the house and spending so much time with the residents, lacks a sounding board, and the tension that the connection with the murder brings down on them all serves as a catalyst for hers and Alex’s friendship. Which progresses quickly towards a romantic and physical relationship, which in turn is blown apart when Alex’s lies are revealed, as they obviously must be.

There are a number of secondary characters, most of whom are fully rendered as living, breathing people, even when they have only a handful of scenes and very little dialogue.

There is a second, and to me even more interesting, secondary romantic plot. One of the detectives assigned to the case is Lynne Garrison. She actually works in sexual abuse and domestic violence, but she’s been assigned to the task force dealing with the Avenger precisely because the victims are all abusers—and at least in one case, have killed their victims.

Her story is also complicated. She is divorced, from another cop, who is pulled to work with the task force (among other things, he’s an expert on serial killers). Their feelings for each other are not yet resolved—and neither is, much to my frustration, their relationship by the end of the novel.

On the technical side of the writing, Ms Dare’s years as a police dispatcher serve her well, making the police narrative believable by giving just enough detail without info dumping –on procedure, what’s known of serial killers, etc. What is refreshing—and yes, I am writing this even though the book is ten years old—it that Ms Dare doesn’t glorify cops simply because they are cops. Through her writing, they are neither saints nor demons, but people, doing a job. Some of them are passionate about what they do, some of them are simply earning a salary, and some of them are right bastards, but at the end of the day, they are all just people.

(And that, considering the current deluge of “hero by virtue of being a cop/serving in any branch of the military,” is very refreshing indeed.)

The writing betrays a slightly antiquated view on domestic abuse, in the sense that, while it’s not explicitly stated, it feels as if there is something about the women that makes her a victim, rather than there being something wrong with the abuser.

The suspense angle is handled deftly, and I remember not having really gotten an inkling as to who the killer really was until just before it was revealed, which is always a very good thing when reading suspense. So while the romance was mostly low key for me, the novel succeeded in keeping me interested to the end, and even in the reread I was pulled into the writing to the point of finishing it off in a couple of sessions.

Avenging Angel gets an 8.00 out of 10.

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One Response to “Avenging Angel, by Justine Dare”

  1. Lori 13/01/2014 at 9:50 PM #

    I think I want to read this one.

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