Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 3.75 stars
Narrator: John Solo
Length: 11 hours, 18 minutes
Shane Carson grew up in his small west Texas town with plans for making it big in the NFL. His football hopes died when a knee injury left him unable to play. Now, Shane lives a quiet life back in his hometown where he is a Sheriff’s Deputy. Big Bend County is a stretch of desert that is both beautiful and haunting, as well as remote enough to be wild and occasionally lawless. Still, Shane is stunned when they discover a mass grave with six unidentified women buried in the desert.
Dakota Jennings left Rustler, Texas with no plans ever to return. He loved Shane as a teenager, imagined a life with Shane. But when Shane broke his heart, Dakota ended up joining the military where he rose through the ranks and later became part of an elite squad of Texas Rangers. When Dakota got injured, he ended up working directly for the governor on her detail. Now, Dakota is being sent to Rustler, the place he hoped to never see again, in order to spearhead the investigation into the murders.
At first things are beyond strained between Shane and Dakota. The men must work together, but their past is like a wall between them. The fact that Shane is engaged to a woman isn’t helping, and Dakota still has no idea what happened between them to cause Shane to break up with him all those years before. But when Shane finally gets up the nerve to confess the truth, to share his past with Dakota and to explain more about his life back then, Dakota’s heart breaks for him. And when Shane admits that he still loves Dakota, that he wants to be with him, it is everything Dakota could want.
Unfortunately, the men still have murders to solve and the case isn’t easy. While there are some patterns among the women, there are so many things that don’t add up. As Shane and Dakota dig further, their list of suspects grows, but nothing quite seems to add up. But someone is hiding a big secret, and that secret seems worth killing for. Now, Shane and Dakota must try to uncover a killer, while staying one step ahead, if they are going to stop a murderer and make it out alive.
Never Stay Gone is the first book in Tal Bauer’s Big Bend Texas Rangers series. The story takes place in a remote part of west Texas and the location is almost a character unto itself. One of the places Tal Bauer excels in his writing is establishing the details that really build the world of the story and, from the opening moments, I felt completely immersed in this setting. There is such a feeling of isolation, of miles of empty highway and nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. There is a haunting sense to this environment, a feeling that anything can happen and no one would ever know, and it plays so well into the mystery, as well as the character development.
On the mystery side, we have the discovery of this mass grave in such a desolate location it is only random luck that leads the police to find the grave no one knew was out there. The six women seem unconnected and were killed at different times, so while it seems clear that there is a serial killer, it is difficult to figure out any connections. I think the early part of the investigation moves well and I enjoyed seeing the men putting the pieces together and trying to find how all the women fit. The story then sort of pauses the investigation to focus on the relationship, so things are a bit disjointed here as it takes a while to return back to the case. I found the mystery complex enough that it took a while for me to figure out who the killer was (though there was a point where it became obvious). But I do feel like the unpacking of the mystery after the fact still didn’t pull all the pieces together for me the way I needed. Some things clicked into place, but other aspects still felt a little muddled or unexplained. But overall, I found that the mystery fit well both with these characters, as well as the setting of the series.
The romance here is a lovers reunited story thirteen years in the making. We slowly learn what happened between Shane and Dakota back in high school, and it is both sweet and heartbreaking. You need to be able to go with the idea that after two years together as teens, these men would be still in love and pining for one another 13 years later. I think Bauer makes the case well enough for it to work for me, as clearly the events were not only traumatic for both men, but also pivotal points in shaping the rest of their lives thus far. I did still feel like the men fall back together a little too easily, however. Shane explains, Dakota forgives, and they are immediately back together forever as if nothing happened. I did need a little more time to see this relationship redevelop as adults and recover from the hurt and heartbreak of the past. That said, I did enjoy these men together and Bauer does give a nice sense of this sweeping love of a lifetime.
I listened to this in audio with narrator John Solo and I think Solo’s style was a nice fit here. He tends toward the more dramatic narration and I think it works with the emotion of the story, as well as the intensity of the murder investigation. The story has nice pacing and flow and the emotion comes through well. One area where Solo tends to be weaker is with accents and that was the case here as well. While virtually all these characters are from west Texas, and most even from the same town, the only one with an accent is Dakota. Everyone else speaks with the same lack of accent, though different sounding voices. It just didn’t make sense for the story that only one person has a Texas accent. There is also a bartender who I think is supposed to have a Spanish accent, but it never quite sounds right. Despite that issue, the audio was an easy listen and a nice way to enjoy the book. If you like the audio format, this one is enjoyable as an audiobook.
Overall, I found this one an engaging mystery with a strong lovers reunited theme. The mystery didn’t completely come together for me in parts, but it was interesting enough to keep me enjoying the story. The strong sense of place really enhances this one and I am looking forward to more books set in this world.