Sandra Brown's latest, 'Tough Customer,' features classic suspense

Arlington author Sandra Brown has published a new romantic-suspense novel just in time for last-minute beach bronzing every year for the past few, like clockwork. (For those of us in North Texas, it's last-minute "sitting on the patio directly under the mister" bronzing, but you get the idea.)

Brown doesn't disappoint this year, gifting sweltering readers with an equally steamy tale of obsession, love and terror in Tough Customer. It's a big bang for the buck; she offers not one complicated romance but two, as well as a touching mother-daughter story and a craftily elusive villain.

The author brings back Dodge Hanley, an investigator who played a part in 2009's excellent Smash Cut, and makes him the central character here.

Curmudgeonly Dodge is contentedly, if not exactly happily, toiling in Atlanta when he gets a frantic call from Caroline King, a woman he loved 30 years before and has never really gotten over.

Caroline's daughter, 30-year-old Berry (yes, there's significance in that 30-year coincidence, and I'm not giving anything away that's not on the book jacket), is being stalked by a deranged former co-worker. Dodge heads to the Houston area to help clean up the mess, both literal and psychic, that has turned Caroline's and Berry's lives upside down. Berry's lake hideaway has been breached by Oren, the stalker, leaving a friend of Berry's gravely injured, Berry in shock and her house a bloody shambles. Worst of all, Oren has escaped.

Dodge joins forces with Ski Nyland, a young local deputy sheriff, to track Oren down and keep the women safe, although both Caroline and Berry have plenty of wit and smarts about them; Brown's heroines are anything but wimpy.

Emphasizing suspense

The suspense here mostly overrides the romance, at least until nearly the end of the book, but Brown has such a keen way with building apprehension and panic -- More murders! Oren sightings! Search dogs! -- that the reader will hardly notice the lack of bedroom antics.

For non-Texan readers, or those who find little to love about Houston, Brown gives the area north of the city a dreamy allure: "It was a beautiful country, the kind of forested terrain that most people didn't associate with Texas, which typically called to mind barren plains, tumbleweeds, and oil derricks silhouetted against an endless sky. There were plenty of oil and gas wells in East Texas, too, but the dense forests concealed them. In this part of the state, the sky looked smaller, closer."

A climactic chase scene takes place in the Big Thicket National Preserve, which Brown invests with appropriate creepiness for a place that supposedly houses both Sasquatch and "capricious lights with no traceable source." I won't be camping there anytime soon.

No literary pretense

I'm always charmed by Brown's utter lack of pretense or literary inclinations, and I mean that in the sense of the turgid, almost incomprehensible vocabulary that populates some books aiming for a higher-brow audience. You'll never have to run to the dictionary while reading Sandra Brown.

Describing her villain here, Berry notes, "his ick factor was off the charts." Ick factor is something we can all understand and relate to.

Brown also has fun with Southern stereotypes, both in completely dispelling them and sometimes giving a wink to the fact that stereotypes are usually, at least in part, based on truth. Ski, telling Dodge about Oren's latest escape, notes, "It's like he was raptured off that parking lot."