Books

Love Kills and Ghostwalk

Love Kills: A Britt Montero Novel by Edna Buchanan
Simon & Schuster ($25)

BUCHANAN FINDS THE RIGHT BLEND THIS TIME

Taken separately, Edna Buchanan's two series about Miami reporter Britt Montero and the city's Cold Case Squad haven't lived up to their potential. The last five Britt novels lacked the vitality of her earlier outings; the Cold Case Squad has been the epitome of missed opportunities, stalled by ineffectual tension and character development.

But in Love Kills, the Miami author melds her two series into a novel full of vitality with sophisticated plotting, expert tensions and characters who leap off the page. A former police reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize, Buchanan delivers a vivid tale in her 13th novel. She weaves several plot threads in Love Kills for a story that is ultimately about violence against women and the high cost of love. Despite a few stumbles and rare bits of clunky description, including a chaotic ending, Buchanan delivers one of her best novels, full of twists and surprises and a view of Miami that is fresh and energetic.

Grieving over her fiance's death, Britt is on a leave of absence from the newspaper, escaping to a Caribbean island to remember him and ponder her future. She and her best friend, a newspaper photographer, find a disposable camera on the beach that turns out to contain the honeymoon photos of a couple missing at sea.

Back in Miami, Britt is on the minds of the Cold Case Squad members: She was the last to interview Spencer York, a kidnapper for divorced fathers whose body has just been found after several years.

It was assumed that Spencer, who had no compunctions about harming mothers while abducting their children, had just skipped bond shortly after Britt's interview -- her first big story. Now the detectives know he was killed shortly after talking to her and the detectives hope Britt will remember every detail of their interview.

When Marsh Holt, the bridegroom in the photographs, shows up, Britt is pulled into his sad tale of grief and loss. But Marsh has another side to him, as well as a long list of wives who never lived past their honeymoons.

Buchanan keeps the two stories parallel, alternating between Britt's reporting and the new developments in her private life, and the detectives' investigation. Both stories are equally compelling and Buchanan doesn't resort to cheap gimmicks in showcasing the two investigations. The resolutions to both are well-conceived surprises.

Love Kills falters when Buchanan violates a time-honored rule of writers and journalists -- by telling, not showing. A character's monotonous litany about what's wrong with Miami pales next to Buchanan's skillful way of illustrating the changing face of the Magic City and its residents: small apartment buildings being sold to developers, traffic jams, exploding garbage trucks and bizarre thefts. "You can leave Miami, but Miami never leaves you," sums up Britt's -- and Buchanan's -- affection for the city, and that's the heart of Love Kills.

-- Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau/Random House ($24.95)

DIGGING INTO MYSTERY AROUND ISAAC NEWTON

As strictly a knee-jerk reaction, Isaac Newton wouldn't seem the likely choice around which to wrap a mystery. But real people and icons are now all the rage. While Ghostwalk lacks the nonstop action of The Da Vinci Code or Steve Berry's novels, it more than makes up in its intelligent, literary approach to the modern gothic.

Alternating between 17th century and contemporary Cambridge, Rebecca Stout masterfully delivers an intricate plot that is supported by a book within the novel. At the heart of Ghostwalk are the suspicious deaths that happened around Cambridge's Trinity College during the 17th century and were connected somehow to Isaac Newton. But Stott, a science historian in England, gives equal weight to the murder of a contemporary academian that may be related to a group of radical animal rights activists.

Ghostwalk drips with the atmosphere of Cambridge -- from the plague-ridden 17th century where the city must have "seemed like a vision from Revelations" to its current incarnation as "a city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards." The pace is deliberate, but never dull.

The intrigue begins when Cambridge historian Elizabeth Vogelsang is found, drowned in the river near her farmhouse. She had been working on a controversial biography of Newton that dealt with his infatuation with alchemy and the supernatural.

Elizabeth's son, Cameron, asks his former lover Lydia Brooke to finish the book. Lydia respected Elizabeth and they maintained a close friendship long after she and Cameron broke up. Living in Elizabeth's home, Lydia soon finds this "ghostwalk" to the 17th century comes with flickering lights that dance across the walls, missing papers and an odd assortment of people, one of whom may even be a ghost.

Stott keeps the gothic tones high, while not neglecting the mystery elements or the contemporary story that pulls Ghostwalk together. Only the inevitable romance seems clunky and out of place.

The author, whose last work was a biography of Charles Darwin, has supported Ghostwalk with meticulous research, footnotes, timelines, an extract from Newton's works and a suggested reading list. That's all well and good and adds to the feeling of authenticity. But most important, Stott knows how to tell a good story.

-- Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))

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