Criminally sexy

When it comes to the best-selling books of Allison Brennan, should we dial ‘M’ for murder or making love?

Photo By Larry Dalton

Allison Brennan knows her books are entertainment, first and foremost. They’re the sort of novels people pick up for a rainy Saturday, an afternoon at the beach, an airplane trip. Reading them right before bed might not be a good idea, unless being stalked through nightmares is your idea of a good time.

Witness the opening line of Brennan’s upcoming novel, Speak No Evil: “At the very beginning, she had seen his face and knew he would not let her live.”

It’s not the sort of fare you’d expect from a married Sacramento mother of five and a former legislative analyst, but Brennan is making her living these days as the author of best-selling romantic thrillers. She’s prolific—three books this year, and at least three more scheduled for next year. Brennan’s brand of genre fiction, while heavy on the thrills, chills and romance, also has many elements of mystery and crime novels. It’s designed to get readers’ hearts racing—if not with fear, then with passion.

Don’t imagine Brennan’s idea of “romance” is the sort of well-mannered boy-meets-and-woos-girl story your grandma picked up from a rack in the drugstore and kept next to her rocking chair. Nor is it the saga of a long-haired Fabio-style pirate crushing a full-bosomed beauty to his muscular chest that your mother favored. Brennan’s one of the new breed of romance writers that has blown away any perceived limitations about the genre. She writes about smart, competent women with emotional baggage who fall for smart, competent men with emotional baggage, and usually they fight their sexual attraction over a few dozen mutilated bodies while tracking down a sadist of some sort.

Her death had not been easy.

Homicide detective Carina Kincaid stared at the naked corpse of the young woman, avoiding the wide-eyed terror etched on her face. Her mouth was gagged, but what drew Carina’s eye was the word slut scrawled in thick black marker across her chest. A small red rose was tattooed on her left breast.

The victim lay in a disjointed fetal position, dried blood on her legs and vicious red welts on her breasts, indicating her murder had followed sexual assault. In California, that made the killer eligible for the death penalty. One small step toward justice, but it didn’t satisfy Carina. This Jane Doe would still be dead.

—Speak No Evil, Ballantine Books, 2007

There’s a lot of death in Brennan’s fiction, and it’s almost never easy. In fact, if the world really was inhabited by the people in Brennan’s imagination, there’d be a serial killer around every corner. That nice older fellow in the house across the street who waits tables at the trendy eatery downtown? The name tag is a phony, and he’s been skipping cross-country for 35 years, abducting, raping and killing children. That good-looking, flannel-shirted outdoorsman? Every spring, he likes to abduct a coed, starve and torture her, then track her through the woods like a deer before shooting her with a high-powered rifle. That nerdy computer boy working away in the cubicle next to you, separated by the thin pasteboard half-wall …

Scared yet? Out of breath? Heart racing?

That’s just the way Brennan wants you.

“Human beings have a need to understand evil,” Brennan said. “I think we’ve got a desire to find some way to purge our own darkness.”

Evil might not seem out of place in a Midtown coffee shop, but it sure doesn’t seem like a topic Brennan would spend so much time on. She’s the perfect package of a soccer mom: moderately-sized SUV, fashionable-but-comfortable clothes, cell phone she leaves turned on in case one of her kids calls, bright eyes behind tasteful glasses. In fact, Brennan’s downright perky. So what’s the fascination with violent crime and serial killers?

That comely, laptop-wielding café dweller? Actually, she prefers to dwell in the darkest reaches of the psyche …

Photo By Larry Dalton

“I think the attraction is the same as the attraction to action movies, to horror movies,” she said. “It’s an entertaining way of relieving these fears.”

Her novels fall into the same category as scary movies. “We were all kids. We all wanted to be scared just for fun,” she said. “There’s comfort in going through something frightening and being able to come out the other side.”

The things she finds most frightening are the departure points for her fiction. Where a horror novelist like Stephen King, one of Brennan’s writing idols, may conjure up a vampire or werewolf to scare the wits out of readers before bringing in a wooden stake or a silver bullet, Brennan finds all the monsters she needs just by taking a look around the community—and more than a few heroes in police and sheriff’s departments, as well as the FBI.

“I start with the one thing that I’m most scared of: something happening to my kids,” she said. “So there’s my villain—he kills children.” That was her starting point for The Kill, which tells the story of a woman’s quest for justice for her murdered sister, the killer’s first victim. She deliberately kept most of the violence off-stage in that one, avoiding her usual graphic descriptions because the victims were children.

Brennan’s fine with people who aren’t comfortable with the subject matter. “I don’t need to justify what I’m doing,” she said, “but for me it was a way of purging those fears.”

And the romance? “You have higher stakes when someone you love is in jeopardy,” she said. “It also gives even higher satisfaction when, at the end after all the trauma and action, there are two worthy people who are going to be able to find happiness.”

He let her control the pace. Just like the first time they made love, he let her decide when and how deep and how fast.

She was so incredibly sexy as she spread herself and slowly, almost painfully, slid onto him. Her hair was a wild tangle of long curls, her lids heavy on her eyes, her mouth parted. So gorgeous. He resisted the urge to speed up their lovemaking, wanting to end it now and keep going forever at the same time.

—The Hunt, Ballantine Books, 2006

If the violence doesn’t get readers’ heart rates and blood pressure up, the romance—which always includes some rousing, fully explicit sex—certainly will fit the bill. “The focus of my books is not the romance,” she said. “It’s finding the killer and solving the crime.” She describes the romance, from the attraction to the sexual tension to the climax (and that is exactly the right word), as “a bonus.”

Not everybody likes the sex. “I have some people write me and say, ‘Great book, but can you leave out the sex?’ ” Brennan said. Others are just fine with the sex—in fact, they’d like more—but they want less violence. “What I tell these people is that this is what I write.”

And she promises more. Much more. “If you think I’m dark now, wait until you see the paranormal I’m working on,” she said. The supernatural-thriller-romance has a planned publication late in 2007. “Let me tell you, the demons are not nice.”

It’s not that Brennan wants to be grim and gruesome. She’s tried to write lighter things, like a romantic-comedy mystery along the lines of The Thin Man, set on a cruise ship. “I sent it to my agent, and she said, ‘You’re not funny.’ ”

That’s an assessment it would be easy to disagree with, considering the way Brennan laughs. Giggles. Chortles, even, over her pumpkin muffin and coffee. “I’m pretty much a happy person, and I want to stay that way,” she said. Unlike the warped and vile killers she writes about, she’s nice. She wants to believe in a happy ending.

“Too often, in real life, the good guys don’t win,” she said. “We don’t find the killer, or we don’t stop them in time.” She paused for a moment. “The good guys always win in my books.” It’s a promise she can keep, at least in a frightening, arousing, romantic-thriller sort of way.

“It may be a rocky road getting there, but I promise a happy ending.” And that’s something to smile about.