Out at Night, by Susan Arnout Smith

Susan Arnout Smith's Out at Night, the second novel to feature San Diego crime-scene tech Grace Descanso, opens with a bit of stomach-churning violence: a middle-aged college professor crawls through a California soy field, desperately trying (and failing) to avoid being shot by a crossbow. When the police discover his murder, they learn that he spent his dying moments leaving the message "Find Grace Descanso" on his answering machine—which means that the Florida vacation Grace and her young daughter are enjoying is over. Grace is recalled to California, where she finds herself neck-deep in a FBI terrorist investigation centering around an agricultural convention.

This dense, atmospheric novel has a lot going for it, including a flawed-but-interesting heroine and a multi-layered plot. Actually, Out at Night has a little too much going for it: several of the zillion or so plot threads get lost in the crowd, and the Big Reveal comes so late in the novel that it falls flat. Smith probably should have held off on a few of Grace's personal issues, seeing as she's carrying around more angst than your average soap opera heroine (she's a recovering alcoholic from a troubled childhood, she spent five years hiding her daughter's existence from the kid's dad, her own father may have faked his death, etc.). These dramas were reasonably interesting, but they definitely strained credulity.

On the other hand, I'd rather an author show an overabundance of imagination than the alternative, so I found myself enjoying Smith's excesses. (Genetically modified foods? Racial DNA profiling? Female fertility scandals? Bring 'em on!) Out at Night might have been improved by a little pruning, but it proves that Smith is a mystery/suspense talent to watch.
Posted by: Julianka


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