This time, Isaacs' heroine is in over her head

Review Mystery

February 11, 2007|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

Past Perfect

Susan Isaacs

Scribner / 340 pages / $25

Although the heroines of Susan Isaacs' earlier books, from Judith Singer in Compromising Positions (1978) to Amy Lincoln in Any Place I Hang My Hat (2004), are clever and spunky, Katie Schottland is a mental lightweight.

The protagonist of Isaacs' 11th novel, Past Perfect, Katie has a propensity for one-liners but little spunk. When she gets into trouble, she tends to cry. And when she gets into deep trouble, she calls her husband. All of which suggests that despite her verbal acuity, she's out of her element in this fast-moving murder mystery.

Coming from a family of high achievers - her mother is a psychiatrist and her father is the founder and CEO of a successful business - Katie smarts remembering the day 15 years before when she was told that her CIA clearance had been pulled. Blackballed and without references, Katie reinvented herself, first as a mother, then as a novelist, then as a screenwriter for a television show, Spy Guys, whose scripts are often derived from Katie's time in the agency.

As the story begins, Katie is happily married to Adam, a handsome but stodgy veterinarian, and is the mother of 10-year-old Nick, but she can't forget the past. So when after years of silence, Lisa Golding, her former coworker, telephones saying she knows why Katie was fired and would reveal that information if Katie in return helped her with an urgent matter of national importance, Katie says she's busy. Call back tomorrow. (Her reaction didn't make sense to me either.) Katie does try to rescind the answer but cannot.

Her gaffe leads her down several blind alleys, into a brier patch, through a Bates Motel lookalike and into the arms of Danger. Katie travels over several states trying to retrieve her reputation and learn the whereabouts of Lisa - who did not call back the next day despite saying she would.

Katie momentarily wonders whether Lisa (known for her white lies) made up the urgent matter of national importance and lied about saying she'd call back. But soon she's obsessing over Lisa's absence and checking her phone for messages. Think Bridget Jones playing Nancy Drew. Katie's also over her head in a past she's never understood, especially the case of three East German higher-ups brought to the U.S. under cover.

An underling, she worked on the case but knew little about it. Packed away after all these years, her notes are conveniently located in a storage closet in the basement of her New York apartment - even though Katie was escorted out of the office by armed guards intent on seeing that she took only her personal belongings. How Katie managed to squirrel away these secret documents is not satisfactorily answered, but to her credit Isaacs provides so much page-turning action that it's hard to think about the details.

Katie uses the notes to locate the three East Germans, who, she thinks, will lead to Lisa, but two of them have died mysteriously. That leaves one, Maria Schneider, whom Katie meets after she (in true chick-lit style) reconnects with Benton Mattingly, her former boss with whom she had a romantic relationship.

Katie's romance with Ben was short-lived because, as Katie puts it, he was "immune to my charm and underwhelmed by my intellect." But Katie still has a crush on the man despite being happily married and pushing 40. Seeing Mattingly as the one who got away, Katie wistfully remembers their time together while berating herself for her adolescent behavior and applying "Barely Strawberry Glossimer lip shine" in preparation for their reunion. Trouble is that Lisa also had and probably still has an amorous relationship with Ben. At least, that's what Maria tells Katie. But Katie isn't sure that Maria can be trusted, especially after she sneaks into Maria's very untidy home and rummages in her closet, where she sees clothes that may have once belonged to Lisa.

How did they get there? Is Maria just a poor housekeeper? Or is she crazy? Has she done away with Lisa? Or is it Ben who wants to get rid of both Lisa and Katie? Perhaps he's worried about losing his rich wife. Maybe he's behind Katie's firing. Could it be all of the above? Looking at it from Katie's perspective, it's hard to know.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is the author of "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability," which will be published in 2007.

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