Hunted by Elizabeth Heiter
Hunted by Elizabeth Heiter (Harlequin Mira, 2014) introduces us to FBI Special Agent Evelyn Baine, a profiler of mixed race attached to the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Virginia. We’re in the stock situation of a reasonably experienced officer sent out into a rural area on her own. She has a considerable track record in the field and also carries emotional baggage from an incident when she was young. The combination makes her very efficient, highly motivated and confident. As we might expect, the UNSUB she’s hunting is also highly intelligent and competent. Since her initial assumption is that this is a man hunting women in his own backyard, it also raises tensions within the local community. If she’s right, that means one of their neighbours is the killer and few people feel comfortable with that news. The police prefer to reject the expert’s opinion. They don’t properly relate her profile to the men who live in their area.
At one level, this is one cliché after another. The woman with the early adverse experience becomes obsessed with being able to detect “evil” and catch wrongdoers by profiling. This drives her through the law enforcement career barriers until she finally gets into the BAU. She’s emotionally repressed after an unsuccessful attempt to form a relationship. So she’s the personification of a loner with a perpetual desire to prove herself. The result has been one of the best closure rates among serving officers, but a woman who, because of her defensiveness, has the respect of those around her but minimal practical support. Despite the natural sexual attractions, there are no “friends” at work. Her “heart” is in lockdown mode. There are just the two women who went through university with her. She feels safe with them.
What makes the whole even less appealing is the choppy writing style. There are two problems. The first is a slightly florid approach which tends to produce melodrama instead of the more standard thriller tone. The second is a lot of authorial infodumping. Instead of interweaving background information into conversations, we get explanatory bursts of how things were or why he/she might think in a particular way. As we might expect from a first novel, there’s a certain naive enthusiasm. Every time the author thinks we readers should know something, she doesn’t mess around. She just tells us. I suppose I could view this as a refreshing, down-to-basics approach. . . Hopefully, the next book in the series will settle into a better style or one of the editors at Harlequin takes her to one side and convinces her there are better ways of crafting a narrative. Fortunately, much of the hard work has been done. At the end of this book, we know what we need to carry forward with these core characters in the next in the series.
Reading this, you might think I’m going to rip Hunted to shreds. So far, it’s got nothing going for it. Without straining a muscle, you can predict the outline sequence of events and the ending. Except the devil’s in the detail. Once you cut through all the overwritten sections and ignore the slightly purple prose, there’s rather a good story to enjoy. At this point, we need to recognise reality. There are only one or two plots for a BAU profiler novel. So the job of an author is to come up with a plot that’s sufficiently different to hold interest to the end. In this, I’m pleased to say Elizabeth Heiter manages the standard plot elements in an assured way and comes up with a satisfying variation on the theme. The way in which the trail of breadcrumbs is laid out for the hero to follow is ingenious, allowing us to follow the progress to identifying the man. Even though the end is predestined, it still manages to play a game with the reader’s expectations on the issue of abandonment. However, there’s one element where I’m slightly ambivalent.
Sexual discrimination is a pervasive problem in our society. In those employment environments considered more the province of males, the degree of hostility women face is a continuing burden. For example, the culture in the military approaches outright machismo and misogyny. Sexual aggression, both physical and psychological, is explicitly tolerated and the military justice system fails to protect women who are victimised. Although the culture in the FBI is not quite so overtly dangerous to women, this novel does feature behaviour from FBI officers objectively constituting harassment. The hero’s response is largely passive. She prefers to ignore the humiliations and minimize confrontation. Her world view is that making waves on the ground of her gender would hinder her career and, since her psychological wellbeing depends on remaining a profiler, some degree of submissiveness is required. This does not mean she does not boil inside. But there’s a self-imposed bridle on her tongue. I can understand the point of her strategy and suspect many women fear retaliation for complaining about male colleagues. So while commending the realism of the behaviour she has to tolerate, I’m uncertain her interior monologue shows the appropriate response. In the heady days of more overt feminism forty or fifty years ago, there would have been outrage and a plan she would assume command of the BAU and begin to change the culture from within. This mindset seems slightly too self-centred, even for 2014. Sauve qui peut works for the individual sufficiently determined to succeed. I suppose more collective action has little purchase in right-wing America. It just seems an opportunity lost for the author to say something a little bit more positive in promoting greater sexual equality.
With that reservation, I end up thinking Hunted an above average thriller romance. For all its faults, the essential story is engaging and the central character credible. You can’t ask for more than that in these complicated cultural times.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.