Elizabeth Stuart has settled in the town of Still Creek with her angst-ridden teenage son Trace in an effort to escape a nasty divorce that painted her as a loose woman. When she discovers the dead body of local businessman Jarrold Jarvis, she believes it is the perfect fodder for her to up the readership of The Clarion, the local newspaper that she has purchased. It also leads her to cross paths with Sheriff Dane Jantzen, and their "snappy" exchanges are straight out of Romantic Suspense hell.
Elizabeth believes that Jarrold's mysteriously-missing "black book" might hold the clues to his murder, whereas Dane is more interested in sexually harrassing Elizabeth, whilst pinning the murder on Carney Fox, a trouble-maker who has rolled into town. As the murder "investigation" continues, the two continually wind up in each other's company, but can't resist the sexual attraction that lurks beneath their outward contempt for one another.
The only reason I put up with Still Waters' preponderance of cliches and stereotypes is that I know Tami Hoag made her start in romantic suspense before moving into grittier territory in later novels, becoming quite a reliable thriller author along the way. Still Waters was published in 1992, early in her mainstream career, so I was prepared for something underplotted along the lines of 1993's Cry Wolf. Thankfully, Still Waters is the much better novel (comparitively speaking), with the murder mystery angle remaining in play for the entirety of the story.
That being said, it's a pretty weak murder mystery, with only a handful of suspects and the mysterious "black book" that conveniently only shows up as the book is drawing to a close. Of course, the focus here is mostly on the antagonistic relationship between Elizabeth and Dane. This is one of those dreaded romance novels in which the two leads despise each other most of the time, with their fiery exchanges covering the hankering they feel for each other lurking in their loins. I swear, despite the 1992 publishing date, you'd think this was straight out of the 70s. Seriously, how can any author - romance novel or otherwise - not cringe when delivering lines like: "it was too damn bad she was nothing but trouble"? How can any reader not gag when stumbling across such a sentence?
Character-wise, Elizabeth didn't annoy as much as I thought she would, despite her overuse of the term "sugar" to address others, or the fact she's clearly a terrible mother, more interested in her itch south of the navel for Dane, rather than concerned for her wayward son's whereabouts. She's the typical wilting flower in some circumstances, but does show pluckiness in other situations, so she's not a total washout.
Dane, on the other hand, is a pathetic loser. Everybody else sees him as "all man" and "respectable". I saw him as a clueless dolt who refuses to grow up. He goes on and on about the investigation wearing him out because he's spending so much time on it, but I saw no evidence of that. He questions maybe two people and that's it! The rest of the time he's treating Elizabeth like garbage and being rewarded by her throwing herself at him. It takes a trashy Southern woman for him to think: "Hey! An incriminating black book could be a good motive for murder!" Real quick on the uptake, Dane.
When he's not being an incompetent sheriff, or displaying behaviour around Elizabeth that strongly resembles misogynist sexual harrassment, he's bitching and moaning about his divorce - which happened TEN YEARS AGO. Time to move on, Dane, and take some responsibility for your life. I detested the fact this belligerent, brain-dead, misogynist moron had his behaviour validated by the love of a woman and the respect of a whole town. Ugh, I really couldn't stand him. I suppose it was a nice change that I wanted to throttle the male character instead of the female character.
Still Waters is romantic suspense drivel from an author who has frequently demonstrated that she can do much better. It's an acceptable time-waster, I suppose, and you can't really hold it against Hoag, since it was written more than 20 years ago.