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Crescent Blues Book ViewsBantam (Hardcover), ISBN 0-553-80252-6

There's a serial killer at work, but a serial killer with a difference!

Book: Lisa Gardener, the killing hour
Yes, I know: you heard that opening line before. But please, bear with me. This one's m.o. involves abducting two young women at once. One he kills immediately, but then he doctors the corpse so that (for anyone who can first realize his intentions and then interpret his cryptic clues) it acts as a pointer to the location where he dumped the second abductee -- alive, but in fiercely hostile territory and with an inadequacy of survival essentials. The "first victim" thus becomes the lucky one. So far all but one of his "second victims" suffered torturous deaths.

Previously, the killer confined his activities to Georgia. But Georgia agent Mac McCormack receives an anonymous tip that brings him to FBI Headquarters at Quantico. Sure enough, the killer dumps the next "first victim" right inside the Quantico grounds, where it is discovered by trainee agent Kimberly Quincy.

Assisted by Kimberly's ex-FBI father and his lover (now running an investigations agency together), Mac and Kimberly battle with inordinate amounts of FBI red tape and politics as they try to identify the whereabouts of the "second victim" in time to save her life. Together, they discover that this time the Eco-Killer -- so-dubbed by the press because his motives appear to include a twisted attempt to draw public attention to endangered wilderness areas -- devised a riddle far more devious and far more ambitious in its scope than any he ever set before…

So far so good -- and the fact Gardner tells her tale in her characteristically smooth and readable style helps proceedings along. With its notion of murdered bodies being adulterated to offer elaborate clues, The Killing Hour recalls those fascinating Golden Age detective novels by the likes of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr where the murderer engages in a complicated intellectual game with the detective. On such terms, Gardner's novel scores as every bit as engrossing as those precursors.

Book: Lisa Gardener, the other daughter
Unfortunately, that pinpoints the eventual problem with The Killing Hour. Its literary precursors did not strive for realism. Indeed, they deliberately shunned it so the focus would be on the puzzle, on the game, with the plot being all the more delightful for its stark implausibility. Gardner's plotting in the later stages of this novel proves to be every bit as implausible. But because the telling relies on realism -- she seeks to thrill, not just to puzzle -- her denouement comes as a profound letdown. A shame, because the book enthralls before those final fifty pages.

One oddity -- internal evidence suggests that Gardner intended to call this novel by a different title. Instead it bears the rather hackneyed, uninspiring moniker The Killing Hour. One wonders if the publisher thought the original title revealed too much of the plot.

John Grant

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