Thriller Tuesday: Never Look Back

Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ½ Spice Rating: 🌶

Cross-posted (a slightly shorter version) on my Goodreads.

I am constantly looking for quality romantic suspense to read. I blame Dee Henderson. She got me hooked on the genre with the wholesome love featured in her cozy mystery Danger in the Shadows and left me with an unfulfilled desire to read more books like it. Luckily, that book was a prequel to the popular O’Malley Series and she has written many other books since then. Although I’ve graduated to books with mature content and more complicated cases, I still revisit the entire series every two to three years and enjoy them every time. My love of romance with a dire backdrop has only intensified over time as I’ve predictably jumped from genre to genre. No matter if what I was reading was YA or adult, Fantasy or Contemporary Fiction, or something else entirely, I always gravitated toward books with love in the midst of danger. I tend to have trouble finding thrillers with well-written romance, but I still enjoy the search because Crime and Mystery novels tend to interest me regardless. For better or for worse I started watching procedural dramas such as CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order: SVU at a young age, and have not lost interest in them as an adult. Although I’ve mostly stopped watching them since I became aware of the controversial impact they can have on society’s perception of law enforcement, particularly in America, I continue to find interest in mystery and true crime content. This interest actually grew after I took a Criminal Justice course in college on juvenile crime. Since then I’ve enjoyed learning more about Criminal Psychology and got the urge to dive back into the world of Romantic Suspense.

     I was excited to find Mary Burton’s book Never Look Back in one of my favorite small bookstores in Virginia in near perfect condition and was excited to see that she is actually a local author. It is listed as the sixth title in her Criminal Profiler series, but can certainly be read as a stand-alone novel. The story follows Melina Shepard, an investigator for the missing person division of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) as she gets caught in the middle of two active cases. The story opens from the perspective of a serial killer as he sets his sights on Melina, unaware that she is an undercover cop posing as a sex worker. She is investigating two women who were abducted off the streets of Nashville while on the job and has taken the initiative to do some fieldwork without approval from her boss or any formal backup. The only person who is watching her back is Reverand Sarah Beckett, who runs a recovery residence for women struggling with addiction or trying to find a different line of work. After Sarah helps Melina thwart the killer’s attempt to grab her, she invokes his wrath and places a target on her back. However, there’s more than just one criminal on the loose, and she quickly finds herself paired with FBI agent Jerrod Ramsey, who finds similarities between her case and several of his own. As they get closer to finding the man who nearly got away with Melina, details of her past begin to come into play, and she is left with no choice but to reopen some old wounds.

     As far as crime novels go I actually thought this one was pretty good. It definitely sparked my interest in the same way a procedural drama or true-crime podcast might. However, if you’re looking for romantic suspense, this isn’t really what you’re looking for. It doesn’t detract from the mystery, but the relationship in this has little development and is pretty dry. Both Melina and Ramsey are work-a-holics, which may give them something in common, but without more detail about their interests and personality traits, they read as rather two-dimensional. They also don’t have much chemistry. The few personal moments that they share are short and still centered on work for the most part. There’s almost no sexual tension and her connection with Ramsey could be easily replicated with any other coworker, including the Reverand. Usually, in these circumstances, I look to a spicy chapter to redeem the romance a little bit, but that fell flat too. If Melina was a real person and a friend of mine I would hold a small memorial service for the death of her libido. Again, is it absolutely necessary for the story to have a sizzling romance? No. Do I personally hope to find it in every single book I read? Yes. But, to each their own.

In regards to the other characters, I don’t have a ton to add. I enjoyed Melina’s parents and their small involvement in the story. Their relationship with one of the witnesses is extremely sweet and I thought it was a nice addition that contributed well to the plot. The witness herself, who is a minor, goes through a lot prior to her introduction to the story and I really felt for her. Melina’s small bond with her was great, and I would’ve enjoyed seeing a bit more of that. I felt that Sarah Beckett’s character was under-utilized in this story. She would have made a great friend for Melina and a relationship like that would’ve made her more lifelike. Whenever I read a story where the main character has no friends I think it limits the world-building a great deal. While there are many lone wolves out there, I personally think making both main characters loners limited their growth and made it harder to connect to them as a reader.

A lot of crime novel fans may read this and think, “Who cares as long as the mystery is written well?”. I understand that. I am in no way trying to knock this book. I gave it 3.5 stars for a reason, which on GoodReads falls between “I liked it” and “I really liked it”. The killers were frightening and they had clear motivations for their crimes. The way they executed their plans was pretty realistic and the details provided by the medical examiner and forensic pathologists were often disturbing but contributed to how Melina and Ramsey solved the case. Although mild, the tension grew as the killer faced obstacles and lost some of their restraint, which had previously helped them stay hidden for so long. The pace picks up toward the end and as the threat starts to feel more personal to Melina, I found myself getting more engaged in the story, which was great. It did seem to rush to a conclusion just a bit but it didn’t feel unfinished in any way. I also think the mystery would’ve benefited from more suspects and witnesses. More appearances from Sarah and the women from the Mission would’ve worked well for this. Overall though I thought the cases were intriguing, the antagonists were well written, and the end held a few thrilling twists.

While I wouldn’t rank Never Look Back as one of my favorite suspense novels, I enjoyed reading it a lot and will definitely keep an eye out for more of Mary Burton’s books in the future. She has a few different series, including one set in Richmond, Virginia, so I look forward to reading one of those in the future. This story helped satisfied my craving for a solid mystery and got me excited to search for more to add to my To-Read list! Are you a fan of romantic suspense? Do you have any favorites you recommend? Who are some of your favorite romantic pairings in fiction that are #goingthroughit? I’ll start. Two of mine are Bryce and Hunt from Crescent City by Sarah J. Maas and Ziva and Tony from N.C.I.S.!

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