Buchanan thriller brings Miami to life

February 02, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

When you make your living writing about the facts, just the facts, ma'am, rearranging reality can be tempting. It'd be nice to clean up the mess of reality every once in a while -- solve all the unsolved cases, make every chase end in an arrest, correct all the injustices of the justice system.

With this, her second novel, Edna Buchanan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning police reporter for the Miami Herald, ties up all those loose ends that can make reality so unsatisfying. "Miami, It's Murder" is indeed satisfying in the same way that Charles Bronson movies are: The bad guys eventually get theirs, but good.

Many of the good guys from Ms. Buchanan's first novel, "Contents Under Pressure," make a return appearance. Her alter ego, Britt Montero, is an overworked and underloved police reporter for a Miami newspaper -- tough on the outside with TC

soft spot for stray animals and honest cops on the inside. Her best friend is Lottie, an expatriate Texan and newspaper photographer. The hunky Kendall McDonald was Britt's lover until their cross-purposed careers ended their relationship.

During this particular summer, all sorts of criminal mayhem is heating up an already wickedly hot South Florida. Bodies keep turning up: encased in the foundation of a building under construction, in a Chevy Malibu sunken years ago in Biscayne Bay, hanging from a rope in an apparent case of sexual asphyxiation. Then there's an unsolved murder of a little girl 22 years ago that threatens the candidacy of the front-runner in the gubernatorial race.

Unfortunately, for a thriller, the string that ties these seemingly unconnected crimes becomes pretty obvious about a third of the way into the book. Characters eventually speculate on, then dismiss, the connection even as the reader is thinking, like, duh! Still, there are twists along the way that will surprise you, and Ms. Buchanan has the reporter's gift of making a story move quickly and engaging you to read on.

The other crime that is fraying Miami's nerves this summer is a serial rapist who attacks women in the bathrooms of downtown office buildings. A dual chase unfolds -- the cops after the rapist, the reporter after the story. It's very police reporter-verite, from the push-pull of trying to write a complete story even as the cops are keeping secret certain details of the investigation, to the equally frustrating tug of war with editors back in the newsroom.

Given this daily struggle both at police headquarters and in her own office, you'll forgive Ms. Buchanan for indulging her reporter-fantasies: Britt not only does her job heroically, she does the cops', too.

Ms. Buchanan is, of course, at her best capturing her beloved Miami, from the soul-satisfying arroz con pollo at La Esquina de Tejas in Little Havana to the old Miami Beach where Britt lives. It's a couple of blocks and worlds away from the models-and-Eurotrash scene and the arrivistes from the suburbs who swarm there to gawk at them.

She gets her characters just right: the female lieutenant of the rape squad who had to be tougher than any man to get to where she is; the aging detective getting forced out of his job, which basically is his life.

There's a particularly well-written and terrifying sequence in which she runs into a criminal herself. It's made particularly memorable by the fact that Ms. Buchanan doesn't forget to show that the ordeal doesn't end for the victim just because the sirens stop and the criminal is locked up.

It doesn't stop there. The barely recovered Britt stumbles into another case toward the end of the book -- this time, a knife-wielding, "Psycho"-like madwoman -- and it starts to seem a bit much. Shouldn't this woman be sent to Somalia or Bosnia to clear up those messes?

But hey, that's why this is a novel. If you want reality, you'd be reading a newspaper.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Miami, It's Murder"

Author: Edna Buchanan

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 244 pages, $21.95

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