Narrated by Christina Traister
The Dollmaker is the second book in Mary Burton’s The Forgotten Files series, but it works perfectly well as a standalone. It’s my first time listening to a book by this author, and it definitely won’t be my last, as the mystery is tightly-plotted and suspenseful and the main characters, while perhaps somewhat stereotypical, are nonetheless well-drawn and likeable. The mystery element of the book is very much to the fore, although there is also a second-chance romance between Agent Dakota Sharp of the Virginia State Police and his estranged wife, pathologist Dr. Tessa McGowan, brewing in the background.
While attending the funeral of his step-father, Roger, to whom he wasn’t close, Dakota Sharp is approached by Douglas Knox, the former local police chief who investigated the death of Sharp’s half-sister, Kara, some twelve years ago. The cause of death was an overdose, but Roger was never convinced of that and spent the last decade or so trying to prove she was murdered. Knox now tells Sharp that there may have been more to Kara’s death and offers to send him his case files. Sharp is sceptical, but, to humour the old man, accepts the offer and asks a colleague to look over them, feeling he’s too close to events to do so himself.
Shortly after this, Sharp picks up a couple of seemingly unrelated cases; the stabbing of a teenaged boy, and the murder of a young woman who was found propped up against a tree in a park, dressed and made up to look like a doll. Except it turns out that the make-up is actually tattoos, meaning that whoever murdered her must have held her captive and sedated for quite some time. The pathology team, which includes the newly appointed Tessa McGowan, finds that the cause of death was an overdose – but there is clearly a lot more going on and this is no “simple” murder.
Sharp and Tessa were married a couple of years earlier, but were only together for eight months before Tessa left to work abroad. She didn’t necessarily want to end their marriage, but things weren’t working and a distance was growing between them. Dakota had always been dedicated to his job, but a recent case that bore similarities to his sister’s death had completely consumed him and he became more driven than ever, relegating everything else in his life to a poor second place. Neither he nor Tessa was willing to compromise at that point – but a year out of the country has crystallised things for Tessa, and she has returned, determined to set things right between them and make their marriage work.
Dakota, on the other hand, isn’t sure they should remain married. He doesn’t think he’s good for Tessa; he’s eleven years older than her and a self-confessed workaholic, and while he loves her as much as he ever did, he wonders if she would be happier with someone else. So he’s surprised and a bit defensive when Tessa makes it clear that she’s still in love with him and that she isn’t going to let him just walk away.
I really liked how the author handles the romance here. Dakota has lost sight of what’s really important in life; he’s dedicated and exceptionally good at his job, but clearly there’s an element there of wanting to assuage the guilt he still feels over not having been able to prevent his sister’s death. Tessa has matured a lot in her year away and is now able to understand what drives Dakota and to want to help him, personally as well as professionally. There’s strong chemistry between them, and it’s clear that they’re both now in a position to recognise that they are better together than apart. But the stakes are raised when the investigation into the murdered “doll” starts to indicate that the killer is not selecting random targets and it looks as though Tessa may well be his next intended victim.
I’m not going to spoil the mystery, save to say that the way the author draws together all the different narrative threads is truly masterful. The link between the cases – the stabbing, Kara’s death, the murdered “doll” – all emerge slowly but steadily, and at no time did I ever need to scratch my head over inadequately thought-out plot twists or jumps in logic. There are a few slightly gruesome scenes where we follow the Dollmaker as he works on his creations, but there’s nothing overly graphic, and I’m sure that anyone who regularly listens to romantic suspense novels – or watches CSI on TV! – won’t be unduly shocked.
Christina Traister is a new-to-me narrator, but one who is very experienced, as a quick look at the over 100 titles to her credit at Audible will show. She delivers a very good performance on all counts here; her pacing in both narrative and dialogue is good, she differentiates well and effectively between characters, and her acting choices are spot on. I was particularly impressed with her vocal acting in the scenes involving the Dollmaker – who is almost always uncannily calm and self-possessed, speaking in a quiet, near-monotone that is perfect for someone who is so horribly unhinged – and his terrified victims, where she expertly conveys their fear without going over the top. The Virginia accents Ms. Traister adopts for Dakota and other locals sound authentic to my English ears, although I have to say that the accent, coupled with Dakota’s considered, deliberate manner of speaking does sometimes make him sound like a bit of a cross between Forrest Gump and Eeyore. But as I got into the story and got used to it, I started to find it rather endearing and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way.
The Dollmaker is a fabulous piece of romantic suspense and one I’m recommending without hesitation to fans of the genre. The suspense storyline is gripping and very well executed, and the romance is nicely done, conveying a real sense of two people who are reconnecting at the right time in their lives and that they are going to make a go of things. I really liked the way Ms. Burton linked the different past and present plotlines together, so I’m off to listen to the previous book in the series, The Shark and definitely plan to keep an eye out for future instalments.
Book Content: B+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Graphic
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
The Dollmaker was provided to AudioGals by Brilliance Audio for a review.