A growing number of commercially successful romance and romantic suspense authors --- among them, Kay Hooper --- have in recent years crossed over into writing thrillers. When another such author, Lisa Gardner, was recently asked in an interview here on Bookreporter.com what had prompted her to make the cross, she replied with honesty that it was the money. The big publishers are currently paying notably larger advances for novels that can be labeled "thriller" ... whether the label is apt or not.
Political correctness notwithstanding, it is nevertheless true that romances and romantic suspense novels are largely written by women, for women. The publishers control and push this market, amply rewarding authors who deliver a reliable product --- i.e. a book that is well-crafted according to a formula proven to sell in numbers sufficient to satisfy the New York Times bestseller list. Kay Hooper brought her ability to deliver a reliable product with her when she crossed over to thriller writing. The problem with this scenario is that a thriller written to formula is a pale creature indeed, and women who confine their reading to such safe ground are missing what real thrillers are all about. The formula goes like this: the major characters are all under forty, the women are stunningly beautiful, the leading man is ruggedly handsome, the killer is either a psycho or a serial killer, or both, the plot is simple (as opposed to layered), and there is no depth to the characters.
Kay Hooper's SENSE OF EVIL is such a book. It is the sixth in two sets of The Bishop Trilogies --- some of which have been New York Times bestsellers. The ending here strongly suggests there will be a third trilogy, headed up by the two main characters in SENSE OF EVIL: Isabel Adams and Rafe Sullivan. Isabel is a federal agent, with the (fictional) SCU --- Special Crimes Unit --- of the FBI. Rafe is Chief of Police in the small town of Hastings, South Carolina, the book's setting, where some horrible crimes have occurred. Isabel and her junior partner, Hollis, have been sent from Quantico to aid in the investigation of a known serial killer who is targeting blonds. Five years previous, a killer with the same m.o. had killed six redheads over six weeks in Alabama, and five years prior to that, six brunettes in six weeks in Florida. Isabel, who is blonde, has a personal connection with the killer: his very first victim was her best friend. She has another connection with the killer as well --- a psychic connection.
The SCU is conceptualized as a unit within the FBI in which all the investigators, or agents, have one or more special psychic abilities. Isabel is clairvoyant, and (although the author doesn't use this word) clairaudient --- she sees and hears things that are happening elsewhere and, sometimes, else-when; she's also in the process of developing clairsentience (another word not used) --- feeling the things she sees and hears. Hollis is a medium --- she sees and talks to dead people. Bishop, the unit's founder, is precogniscent --- he has knowledge of the future --- as is Miranda, his wife. And so it goes.
The plot in SENSE OF EVIL revolves around the search for the killer, the tension over who he might kill next (heightened by Isabel's sense that she will be one of the remaining three blondes to die), and a growing love relationship between Isabel and Rafe. There are secondary characters who are fleshed out enough to provide the possibility that some of them might be the killer, but no secondary plots connected to the secondary characters.
After an intriguing start, the book does not deliver on its promise. The writing, while competent, was not strong enough, at least for me, to compel the suspension of disbelief necessary in a plot that relies so heavily on psychic elements. I was much disappointed in this regard, because I'm inclined to want to believe that psychic abilities do exist, and am therefore not that hard to convince. Other disappointments: The killer was not portrayed in enough depth to be either scary or psychologically believable. The love relationship between the two principals was belabored and distracting, particularly when Rafe is also revealed to be a latent psychic, and much is made of the psychic bond between him and Isabel.
Kay Hooper is a competent writer, but SENSE OF EVIL is not much of a thriller. There are many very good women writers of thrillers out there, and I encourage readers who want to venture into this direction to seek them out. Bookreporter's current focus on thrillers will be helpful in the search.
Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on August 19, 2003