Dared to Run (A Kate Anderson Mystery), by J. J. Clarke [Review]

Dared to Run is a book with some very good writing,  a compelling story, and interesting characters. Everything you need for an enjoyable read. This is the first book in the Kate Anderson series. Book two is already available and readers who want to know what happens next (and there are a bunch of continuing issues and allusions to additional information we don’t know yet) can immediately look for Dared to Return and keep reading. J.J. Clarke has created an interesting narrative.

The story spans several years, after a prologue (oddly written in the first person, while the rest of the book is in a comfortable third person) where we meet the feisty Kate as a young girl, fighting with a group of bullying boys. Unfortunately, Kate’s life is destined to be littered with bullying – and worse – boys. This is Kate’s central identity – she has been stalked and assaulted by men. She fights back, but she is haunted by these experiences. Still, she seems to keep up a positive attitude and she has a big heart throughout, which makes her far more than just a tragic or pathetic figure.

The main story opens with Kate, a few years removed from college (although the exact time line is sometimes murky, perhaps by design), attending an FBI-sponsored law enforcement skills class. We later see Kate teaching skills to other law enforcement personnel. That’s a neat trick for someone as young as Kate. But, the FBI course includes Robert O’Dell, a man with whom Kate had a brief (off-camera) fling. Now he’s stalking her, and they have an encounter (also off camera) where Kate is beaten. He’s a county Sheriff’s deputy and protected by his uncle, the Sheriff and other (unidentified) powerful friends. Kate gets a restraining order against him stalking her, but drops it because it would prevent her from carrying a gun – and she wants to carry her gun. O’Dell continues to stalk her, parking his truck outsider her apartment at night to watch her. He’s super-creepy, and nobody is able to do anything about him. Kate’s friend, a police officer named Ron Davis, tries to help, but there is a sense of dread that O’Dell is biding his time before doing something terrible to Kate. He does one despicable thing (I won’t spoil it), and threatens to harm Kate’s grandparents unless she appears at his upcoming birthday party. It’s a very bad situation. Kate isn’t about to wait for this creep to do something else to her, or to her family.

Kate receives aid and support (and this in in the book blurb, so it’s not a spoiler) from a network of women who run an “underground railroad” for battered women. Kate prepares for the possibility that she will have to use this life line and escape from O’Dell. She ultimately does flee, for unexpected reasons (this, I won’t spoil). We then jump ahead nearly a year, when Kate has found a temporary landing place, but is uprooted by her former boss, Reese, who is now a US Marshall and is searching for her. This sequence involves Kate fleeing again, but is not nearly as suspenseful as her initial escape from her small town in Missouri. The gap in the plot here is frustrating and the scene that follows does not make up for the absence of explanation about what happened to Kate in those eleven months.

The ultimate end then moves forward three more years, again with no explanation of what happened in the interim. Her friend and protector, Ron Davis, has died, and Kate comes back to town for the funeral. The scene is fun – including some excitement and comic relief – but it leaves a lot of open issues for future books. The feeling that the story is not really over, and we learned little about Kate’s life in exile makes the ending less than fully satisfying.

Along the way, Ms. Clarke creates an assortment of supporting characters, including Kate’s best friend and social foil, Susie, who flits in and out of the story, but always steals her scenes. The women in the underground railroad network and their accomplices, her new boss, who is an attraction but also a problem, the county judge who torments her, and her stalker, O’Dell, all add spice to the Kate Anderson stew (or pie, since Kate learns to bake as part of her escape plan).

The individual scenes are mostly very well written, making the reading experience easy and pleasant. Ms. Clarke captures the emotions and voices of her characters very well. I enjoyed the read. At times, however, the plot moved in jerks, bouncing from scene to scene without as much connection and explanation as I would have liked. Characters appeared and disappeared for no apparent reason, and there were a few continuity problems (for example, one character has no idea about the existence of a location where he is later described as having been several weeks earlier). Kate’s job as a bail enforcement investigator/parole officer was never clearly explained, nor did the author fill in the blanks about mysterious (but undefined) investigations the judge was having her do for him beyond her (also undefined) job description. Actually, most of the details about Kate’s job are murky. The book is a very manageable 255 pages, but I wish it had been 355 and that some of the blank spaces had been filled in. The ending leaves the barn doors wide open for the next book in the series. But, I’d ideally like a little more closure and full “ending” to the story of this book, rather than such an open-ended finish.

Despite these issues, this was an enjoyable and engaging read and I would recommend the Kate Anderson series, particularly for young readers looking for a strong female protagonist. The prose is free from profanity or graphic violence, making it appropriate for young readers, for whom I would particularly recommend it.

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