Goofy Grape was a Funny Face flavor that ended production in 1983. The events are taking place in 1997. Our heroine was born in 1980. It is possible she was so fond of Goofy Grape at the age of three that she adopted it as her generic name for grape flavored drink mixes, but it bugged me. Like I said, petty. Fast forward 15 years and I've got some issues with The Last Victim that are far from petty. I'm writing this in early June, so my entry into the book was cold, not an advance review in sight. If you go into the book knowing the basic plot you may enjoy it far more than I did. Robards has good pacing, she has distinct characters, their actions are consistent and logical to who they are. Unfortunately there is one element of The Last Victim I couldn't get past for all the Goofy Grape in the world.
Charlie Stone is about the dumbest heroine I've ever read. (I know Robards likes the name, she's used it before, but if you're going to write a series about a woman who sees dead people the names Charley and Harper are taken.) Charlie Stone is self destructive in a completely new and original way for me. She is sexually attracted to serial killers. Ok, that might not be fair to Charlie. She is sexually attracted to a dead serial killer. Our supposed love triangle is between Mr. Great On Paper who leaves her unaffected and Mr. Rocking Body Dead Guy who killed seven women before he was placed on Death Row. Charlie muses to herself that the attraction is sick (YES) and unwise (YES) and maybe even a bad idea (DO YOU THINK?) yet finds herself unable to resist his rock hard abs. Because if a man is hot, even if you know he is evil, sex is what you can't stop thinking about (NO). This aspect of the book is so problematic that the rest of it doesn't even matter. If you can get past the hero being a serial killer, if inmate fantasy is your thing, The Last Victim is going to rock your world. If you think a woman who survived a serial killer, studies serial killers and is trying to save a young girl from a serial killer overlooking a serial killer's crimes for his hot body is reasonable, have I got a book for you. We've seen this dynamic before. Let's do a quick compare and contrast between Robard's Charlie and Darynda Jones' Charley. For Robards, we will use CS, for Jones we will use CD. Ready?
Sees dead people. CS / CD
Is the Grim Reaper. CD
Has super hot physical encounters when asleep. CS / CD
Is normal human who should know better. CS
Boyfriend has been in jail. CS / CD
Boyfriend killed or tried to kill parent. CS / CD
Boyfriend pursued by apparent demons from hell CD / CS
Boyfriend appears to protect her when needed, even against own will. CD / CS
Boyfriend admits to having done great evil. CD / CS
Boyfriend claims innocence of murder. CS
So yea, the paranormal girl and the super bad boy from hell is a thing, apparently. It's better than Charlaine Harris and her incest-lite sibling couple... ok it's not. I am more comfortable with the high ick factor in the Grave Sight series than I am with Charlie Stone and her boy toy. I completely get that Robards is going to pull a switcheroo in the second book and reveal that Garland is not a serial killer. (He hints at it enough.) But you have to go with what is on the page. On the page Garland is a man being drawn into Hell who threatens, who intimidates, who admits to having done very bad things and who has been convicted by DNA and other evidence. Charlie actually wonders, while getting frisky, if sexual gratification is what flips his psycho switch. The reader may suspect Garland will turn out to just be an average criminal, but Charlie believes him to be otherwise and there lies a very dangerous thing indeed. A serial killer is not a child who went wrong one day. They are not a misunderstood person in need of compassion. A serial killer is a predator who sees other humans as prey. A love affair between Charlie and Garland is like a chicken loving Colonel Sanders. How can a reader buy into that?
Garland is shown to have an explosive temper and a bad past. But he watches ESPN! And he is physically attractive! He can't be so evil as that, can he? Look! He engages in grooming behavior with Charlie! He protects her and berates her! He compliments her! He's a good guy gone wrong! He can be saved, right? No! It doesn't matter if Garland turns out to be innocent in a later book. We are in this book. And in The Last Victim he is the last person I'd consider a hero. That Charlie, with the information she has at hand, falls for him makes her impossible to root for. She can never overcome my personal judgement of Dumber Than A Rock by a later revelation of innocence. It's like the old Regencies where the girl dresses up as a guy so the hero can run around saying NoHomoTho while checking out her ass. I'm not interested in any trend that requires me to go NoPsychoTho.
All of that said, this book is going to have devoted fans. I think it will spark a lot of conversation in romance about where the boundaries of mainstream couples are and what leeway we will and won't give an author in telling her story. I know what side I'm on.