We’re reading our way across America…one romance at a time.
Florida: Ghost Shadow by Heather Graham (Bone Island Trilogy, Book 1)
Florida. The twenty-seventh state to join the Union, and home to the Everglades, Disney World and TV’s Michael Westen, who used to be a spy. Indeed, according to television, a disproportionate amount of crime is carried on in the Sunshine State (the aforementioned Burn Notice, CSI: Miami, Dexter, The Glades, etc.), and with its warring reputations as both a hedonistic hotspot for young college coeds on Spring Break and as the retirement destination of choice for elderly folks fed up with New York winters—not to mention its venerable history of Gay Pride, and a cultural diversity unmatched anywhere in the nation except California—there is perhaps no region in the country that is held to be so many things to so many different groups of people.
To romantic suspense writer Heather Graham, it is a beloved home, and in Ghost Shadow—the first in her Bone Island trilogy—we are left in no doubt of this. The beginning of the book gives us a comprehensive history of Key West, and its tone is as much Chamber of Commerce travelogue as informational back story. Graham loves Key West and its checkered past as much as her heroine, and this shines through her prose so vividly as to make one wonder if this book wasn’t financed by the area’s Tourist Board.
As one who has never been to Key West, however—I’ve never been any further south than Miami; a crazy fun town, Miami—I very much appreciated the local color injected at every turn into this pleasantly chilling, ghost-laden story of obsession, revenge and precipitous new love. Our prologue sets the scene: a young woman is found murdered in a local curiosities museum, posed dramatically in an exhibit dedicated to a macabre story of necrophilia that Google assures me is actually a real thing. That young woman’s ex-fiancé, David Beckett, is the tour guide who discovers her, and while ultimately cleared of official suspicion, when he returns to Florida a decade later to help settle his grandfather’s estate there is still a prevailing question among the townsfolk as to his innocence.
Now part-owner of the museum in which his grisly find was made, he wants nothing more than to close its doors forever, but young local businesswoman Katie O’Hara has always loved the place, and is determined to change his mind. Quite when their mutual antipathy turns to outright devotion is unclear, but it happens fast, as does the reemergence of the brutal killer—after ten long years —who sets off a panic in the town with a seemingly indiscriminate slaying, exactly in the style of the original murder.
Meanwhile, Katie has a secret. She sees dead people. Ever since she was a child, she has communed with ghosts, and her almost constant companion is a gallant 19th-century privateer called Bartholomew. As the body count grows, and as the specters of yet more of the dead call upon her for help, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to keep the truth from David, even as he embarks upon a headlong mission to find the culprit once and for all.
All of this is carried on against the background of Fantasy Fest, a week-long festival of cosplay and carnivale that apparently goes on each year in Key West. (Google also verifies this as a real thing.) The eager throngs are vividly described, and it is those portions are the book that are the most absorbing; you feel there, even as the other-worldly shenanigans and the grisly crimes – which turn out to have the stupidest motive ever—and even the oh-so-sudden True Love don’t quite captivate as maybe they should.
Probably the major issue I have long had with the HEAs offered up so summarily by a certain sort of Romantic Suspense novel is that surely the heightened emotions of the dire situations in which our protagonists find themselves cloud their normal feelings and reactions, making each other doubtless more appealing in the process. It’s like Sandra Bullock’s Annie said in Speed: “You know, relationships that start under intense circumstances… they never last.” A point that was proved in Speed 2, when she had traded in Keanu for Jason Patric. Perhaps here more so than in any other Contemporary subgenre, our couple’s attraction, connection and consummation must seem real, and in this one, I just wasn’t feeling it.
But as a love letter to Key West, Ghost Shadow is an unqualified success, enough so that the follow up books in the Bone Island Trilogy, Ghost Night and Ghost Moon, along with the prequel story Ghost Memories, instantly made in to the top of my To Be Read pile. (Also helpful in this regard was my certainty, since borne out, of exactly whom the heroes of each would most likely be—yep, even the prequel—and that I liked each of them immensely as secondary players in the first outing.) Similarly, Key West has also made it to the top of my To Be Visited list, especially during Fantasy Fest, if I can swing it.
I think I can probably do without the exhibit dedicated to that macabre story of necrophilia, though.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.