A double murder comes back to haunt forensic artist Annie Kingston in STAIN OF GUILT, the stand-alone follow-up to BRINK OF DEATH in Brandilyn Collins's "Hidden Faces" series.
Divorcee Annie Kingston's career as a forensic artist is about to accelerate when the television drama "American Fugitive" hires her to research and draw an updated portrait of the accused at-large perpetrator of a heinous crime that took place two decades ago. She has given a description of Bill Bland, a humorless control freak, intricate planner, and lover of mystery novels. The cold, arrogant Bland is accused of embezzling money from Emily Tarell's husband's business, and Emily, whose husband was one of the two men killed at the murder scene, wants justice.
Emily's son Edwin, who witnessed both murders, is more hesitant, cautioning Annie to refuse the assignment unless she can complete it successfully. Yet Annie's fear is less of doing a poor job portraying an aged Bland than her horror of descending into the mind of the murderer --- something she must do if she is to complete her task of drawing him successfully. "My mind ran its own movie projector on a daily basis, envisioning in screaming color any stray thought that ventured its way. I could only imagine the insanity it would wreak upon me if I embarked on this assignment," Annie realizes. "The deeper I dug into understanding Bill Bland and his murderous brain, the more I would ‘see' every picture in my head."
The over-stressed Annie's personal life is also in a tangle. She has her hands full bringing up her two children alone, with her rebellious teenage son Stephen's proclivity for the wrong friends and smoking pot, and her adolescent daughter Kelly's newfound love for church, something Annie hasn't yet fully embraced for herself. Yet, ever since her neighbor Lisa Willit was killed ten months previous (in BRINK OF DEATH), Annie has committed to God to seek him. Throughout the book, she continues her soul-searching.
As Annie begins her research on Bland, strange things start to happen. Someone delivers a dozen dead roses to her door. And is someone watching her house --- and her children? Threats are made. Could Bland have become aware of her assignment? If not, then who doesn't want Annie to complete her task? What evil force is at work? "People want to think evil looks monstrous, Ms. Kingston," Sergeant Justin Delft tells her. "It doesn't. Evil is the guy next door."
Underlying the story is Annie's own wrestling with her "stain of guilt" from which the novel takes its name --- her failed marriage, her troubled son, the tragedy that had befallen her neighbors less than a year ago. It's only when Annie gives her guilt to God in a detailed conversion scene that she finally discovers peace for her circumstances. And she'll need it –-- more mayhem is right around the corner.
Collins handles changes in point of view adeptly, switching back and forth from Annie in first person to the point of view of the anonymous killer. She also handles flashbacks creatively, allowing the reader to place themselves in earlier scenes involving Bland. However, readers may find Collins sometimes overdoes her descriptions (chills "traced spindly fingers" between shoulder blades or a chill "coiled itself around the length of my spine and hung there, flicking its tongue," or "a sudden shiver clutched at my spine" or shivers "snaked down my spine") and has a few strange word choices ("The question fisted around my heart," "Immediate fear spritzed down my nerves."). By page 50, some readers will have figured out what will be the surprising twist to the story, as this reviewer did. But even if the ending is not a surprise, Collins makes the fast-paced novel still worth the read.
Those who like a little romance with their suspense will enjoy the developing relationships between Annie and Detective Ralph Chetterling, and Annie and her strong Christian widowed neighbor Dave Willit. Although readers looking for romantic resolution will be disappointed, Collins does a good job leaving them hanging for the third installment in the series, which should be eagerly anticipated by Collins's fans.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 1, 2004