‘Lethal’: another masterful Sandra Brown thriller

From Oct. 11, 2011 – Unlike some of her bestselling peers who can fall back on continuing characters who have sold well in the past, Sandra Brown starts each of her new thrillers with a blank slate.

We never know where Brown will be taking us, or what might happen to her characters, but fans have learned to trust the writer after more than two dozen stand-alone thrillers.

It would be terribly sexist to say that Brown writes “like a man” but she is able to deliver tough thrillers in which the men are as well drawn as the female characters. If you took Brown’s name and picture off a book like “Play Dirty” — in which an ex-pro football player is the protagonist and sex plays a major role in the plot — a reader might assume the novel was written by a man.

One of the strongest characters in “Lethal” is Diego, a ruthless contract killer who has inexplicably fallen in love with an Mexican girl who was brought into this country under appalling conditions and then forced to work in a massage parlor.

Brown doesn’t try to redeem Diego through his relationship with the girl, but it certainly makes him a much more complex “villain” than the ones we generally meet in thrillers.

“Lethal” (Grand Central Publishing) maintains Brown’s high standards with a narrative that keeps springing surprises on us for almost 500 pages.

The author always writes from a place of believing in the idea that good people can eventually triumph over bad ones, but the journeys she takes us on to get her characters out of terrible jams are among the most harrowing (and genuinely shocking) in popular fiction.

“Lethal” starts simply with the widow of a small town Louisiana cop being taken hostage — along with her young daughter — by a man who has apparently just committed a mass murder at a local trucking company.

Honor Gillette quickly finds herself in a terrible position — she assumes the intruder is a psychopath who will probably kill her and her daughter no matter how cooperative they might be — but the situation changes when the woman learns that her beloved dead husband might be connected to the intruder.

Things change so fast in the story — and so many of our assumptions are proven to be false — that the less you know about “Lethal” when you pick it up the better.

Brown’s distinctive mixture of compassion and ruthlessness make the very fast journey to page 476 both moving and shocking. The writer is famous for her last chapter twists and the one hidden away in “Lethal” is a doozy.

The real mystery here is how a writer can remain so endlessly inventive through so many thrillers for so many years.

Joe Meyers