by Marianne Stillings

August 2004
ISBN: 0-06-057533-6
Reviewer Graphic Button Avon Books
Mass Market Paperback

The Damsel in This Dress is Marianne Stillings' debut. A debut that promises a lot, but doesn’t yet deliver.

J. Soldier McKennitt is a bestselling crime author, a former Seattle detective, a man unwilling to commit out of fear for failing another loved one. His books are not that popular with one small town critic. The McKennitt brothers are sure that this Betsy Tremaine must be old, ugly and sexually frustrated. Of course they are wrong.

Attending a mystery writers’ conference Soldier gets to meet the woman behind the fierce critiques and cutting reviews. Betsy is cute, on the plump side, wearing cardigans, flowery skirts and pearl earrings. Fluffy blond hair, a straw hat and pink socks round out the picture.

How to get close to this perfect woman? Well, how about teaming up with her in a writing exercise? Dangerous, as her quick, witty and scathing comebacks are dead on target. And death is something Betsy suddenly has to deal with. She is being stalked. How wonderful for this reluctant detective who now is in the perfect position to play hero. Soldier lends a shoulder to cry on, he tells her what to do and when to do it and he shows her how desirable she is.

The sexual tension, the attraction, the sizzle, the burn it’s all there. Of course one has to wait for the first kiss, and several attempts for more are thwarted by announcements of the stalker's desperate and stupid attempts to harm Betsy. Why anyone would want to obsess over Betsy I don’t understand. She’s too nice, too cute, with low self-esteem and endless crying fits. She is not brave, she is not bold, and she is not feisty. She is not a heroine I want to admire or identify with.

Betsy is perfect for Soldier though, as I couldn’t care less for him either. Sure, he is gorgeous, but he is so darn old-fashioned. And she encourages him by coming home after work and making sure that there is food for him on the table. And even though Betsy’s mother is portrayed as selfish and vain, I like her better, as she goes after what she wants, loves her dog and is brave enough to enjoy life and men.

Yes, Betsy and Soldier are likable and many a reader will adore them and will wish for a romance just like theirs. Other readers will be bored. And what’s with all the “he raised/nudged her chin with his forefinger/knuckle”? And it’s not just Soldier, his brother Taylor possesses the same annoying habit. While I’m at it: Why couldn’t Taylor get his own book? His and Claire’s romance seems only thrown in to add a couple more pages. Disappointing. And the villain? Obvious from the very beginning. With motives so shallow they can only be excused with that person’s mad mental state.

And still I turned the pages, I was compelled by one thing, Marianne Stillings’ writing voice. It’s surprisingly strong and unique, readily apparent in those glimpses of humor and spot-on dialogues. So yes, even though it is easy to take apart this debut release I’m eagerly awaiting Marianne Stillings’ next book. I want more of that voice and maybe that story then will have the added pleasure of characters to cheer for and lust over.

Reviewed in July 2004 by Kris Alice.

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