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Love Her Madly

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith

(Henry Holt and Company)

Catch Me If You Can:
Or the Case of the Missing Sister of the Son of God


nt face=“Verdana,Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif”>“‘Jesus has lifted her up, breathed new life into her lips, f”>“‘Jesus has lifted her up, breathed new life into her lips, and will soon tell her when to begin conveying His Words of Salvation.’ The New York Times refused to capitalize she and her when referring to Rona Leigh; all the newspapers within the Bible belt did.”



A female FBI agent is up late at night with another bout of chronic insomnia. She’s busy painting her nails Drop Dead Red, the bottle of which she stores in the egg case of her refrigerator. (This is, of course, a well-known trick that keeps your nail polish from separating or clumping and guarantees ultra-streak-free application.) The only other contents of her refrigerator are a bottle of Grey Goose and a crystal spritzer of Worth, “both of which I use during D.C. summers when, even with my hair up and the air conditioner blowing on my neck, I can’t cool off,” she informs us. (Is this Fed, ummm, by any chance . . . ahhh . . . legally blonde?)  


She is also busy watching taped videos of recent Dan Rather news reports, which is her preferred distraction of choice in the wee small hours. As she paints the nails of her left hand, Dan interviews Rona Leigh Glueck, who is about to become the first woman executed by the State of Texas since a Mexican woman was hanged over a hundred years earlier. Rona Leigh has been convicted of a heinous crime she readily confessed to -– that is, hacking two robust adults into small pieces with a very large and heavy ax, for no particularly good reason.


“I was about to start on my right hand,” says the FBI agent, “when the camera panned down to Rona Leigh Glueck’s own hands, very small, her nails trimmed and neat but not painted. Her wrists were exceptionally delicate, the size you can encircle with your thumb and forefinger.” This transfixes Poppy right then and there –- and gives her cause to wonder.  


“So maybe it was a lightweight ax…” she rationalizes, to no avail.  


And so begins Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s Love Her Madly, the just-released premiere novel in a hot new suspense series featuring FBI agent Poppy Rice. The book has more twists and turns in it than a Texas sidewinder, and just about as much bite and venom, too. As with Smith’s earlier efforts, which were acclaimed by both critics and readers alike, this one seems destined for instant success -– and in a big way, too. The novel is definitely intended for the big screen with some major names in the leading roles and forthcoming Oscars as well.  


Poppy Rice is sassy, savvy, smart-mouthed and smart-assed, the quintessential contemporary turn-of-the-twentieth-century heroine. She has an apartment full of moving boxes that have remained unpacked for five years, a devoted lover in her bed who is both a bona fide stud muffin and a real sweetie, the ability to shoot the you-know-what with the best of them (including obsequious Vatican officiaries, tall-talking Texas good ol’ boys, and wily Washington bureaucrats), and the uncanny knack of smelling a rat wherever it may hide. She is also genuinely delightful, deadly sincere in her convictions, and determined at all costs to see justice done.  


Poppy is convinced that the petite woman she sees on her videotape cannot be guilty of the violent crimes of which she was convicted –- ones necessitating a physical strength well beyond the capabilities of the accused 5’3” featherweight. A preliminary review of Rona Leigh’s case reveals major oversights and irregularities in the investigation and trial, including a bizarre piece of evidence from the forensic physician that was not objected to or questioned. He testifies that he could “smell Rona Leigh’s odor on the ax handle.”  


With only days to spare before the execution and desperate to find new information proving the woman’s innocence, Poppy goes to Texas to visit Rona Leigh Glueck on Death Row. She discovers that the prisoner has had a dramatic conversion experience in prison and now claims that “Jesus changed my DNA,” in essence transforming her from a heartless, drug-addicted, sex-crazed killer to “a lady” in the Lord’s service. This has made her the center of a media circus merrily orchestrated by the movers and shakers from the Religious Right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who (while remaining adamant proponents of the death penalty) are frantically petitioning the governor of Texas for a last-minute reprieve for a prisoner they believe is, by the grace of God, an entirely different person than one who committed the horrendous crimes.  


Rona Leigh has also attracted the attention of the Roman Catholic Church, who has sent a cardinal to be Rona Leigh’s spiritual advisor in her last days. Most shocking of all, the condemned woman herself seems utterly disinterested in the legal appeals on her behalf and eagerly anticipates her upcoming meeting with her Maker.  


However, in a wild turn of events, the death-by-legal-injection execution is inexplicably unsuccessful and Rona Leigh does not die as expected. In a classic piece of bureaucratic insanity, the attending physician in the death chamber refuses to allow another injection to be administered and insists the undead defendant be transported to the hospital to recover fully before being re-excuted at a later date.  


From this moment on, the novel kicks into high gear, carrying Poppy Rice and the reader on a wild ride through a piece of pretty rough terrain involving a conspiracy of church heads, religious cults, corrupt politicians, pop icons, local scoundrels, incompetent bureaucrats, and a host of other seemingly innocent, ordinary people who have become surprisingly conversant with evil. While the religious fanatics elevate Rona Leigh to a status co-equal to Jesus Christ Himself and the media makes the murderess a cause célèbre, Poppy relentlessly continues her search for the truth about this mysterious woman, her inconclusive and unholy past, and her uncertain future – with some surprising results.  


Smith’s novel is sly and fun, full of the sort of up-to-the-minute political and social references that make it relevant and recognizable to the reader. The character of Rona Leigh Glueck is obviously based on ax murderess Karla Faye Tucker, whose much-publicized born-again experience and controversial execution five years ago in Texas drew national attention not only to herself but also to the tough-on-crime governor of the state at the time.  


Though in Smith’s book this familiar personage remains nameless, he certainly bears an uncanny resemblance to a prominent national figurehead we all know and (more or less) love, and undoubtedly remember from the Tucker uproar a few years back. Smith’s vivid portrayal of this hard-line governor with Washington aspirations and a weakness for liquor, who prides himself on the number of executions his state has performed during his term, is one of the book’s highlights -– irreverent, politically incorrect to a dangerous degree, and extremely humorous.  


Love Her Madly is skillfully crafted and cleverly plotted, with characters who are well-drawn and utterly authentic. The book is a masterful blend of suspense, satire, criminology, and astute chronicling of the vagaries of human nature and the modern political scene. With its crisp dialogue and calculated absence of description to lock readers into specific physical images for the characters, Love Her Madly is unquestionably a natural for the Hollywood screen in the very near future.  


Only question is: who gets to play Poppy?  


Hmmm, how about Sandra Bullock . . . or Rene Russo . . . or maybe— 

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