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review

Edna Buchanan introduces a new sleuth who protects crime victims in 'Legally Dead'

August 31, 2008|By Victoria Brownworth | Victoria Brownworth,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Legally Dead

by Edna Buchanan

Simon & Schuster / 359 pages / $26

Edna Buchanan knows crime. During her 18 years heading the police beat for the Miami Herald, she won a Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award for lifetime achievement in journalism.

When she retired from reporting and took up mystery writing, critical acclaim followed.

Among her 17 books, Buchanan has published eight novels in the Britt Montero series. Montero, a Cuban-American reporter for a Miami newspaper, is 32 and single. Her role model is her father, killed by one of Castro's firing squads when Montero was 3. Montero is prone to finding trouble, which is never difficult in the gritty, mob-infested world of Miami.

In her latest mystery, Legally Dead , Buchanan introduces a new detective who couldn't be more different from the amateur Montero, except that his ethos totally mirrors the reporter's: His focus is the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators.

It wasn't always that way. As a U.S. marshal for the Witness Protection Program, Michael Venturi relocated criminals - until Gino Salvi. What turns out to be Venturi's last relocation changes his life.

Venturi reluctantly relocates Salvi, a witness in a union corruption case, to a small town in rural New Hampshire. Salvi is more than a mobster-turned-witness for the government. He's a dangerous pedophile with a fatal predilection for little girls. Salvi's new identity allows him entree into a new community with horrifying consequences: He rapes and murders two children.

Sickened by the dreadful crimes that Venturi had predicted, he exacts his revenge on Salvi.

Venturi also plans to exact revenge on the feds, but gets fired first, scapegoated in the disastrous aftermath of the Salvi debacle.

Venturi devises a new plan for freelance justice and turns to his closest friend and former Marine recon buddy, Danny Trado, a CIA operative with a funeral home cover in Miami's Little Havana.

Together with Trado, Venturi marshals his forces - a coterie of close friends and colleagues who want what he wants: to help the victims, not the criminals. With his furtive team, Venturi sets up his own witness protection program, this time for the innocent. He works to forge new identities for men and women who have been devastated by circumstances beyond their control - a NASA scientist, a judge, a couple wrongly accused of a terrible crime and others.

Just as in the federal witness protection program, however, people have to "die"- be declared legally dead - before they can begin their new lives.

Enter a truly amazing series of deaths, including a shark attack. Fooling the experts becomes a new high for Venturi. After a particularly incredible "death," he begins to feel the horror of New Hampshire recede.

But as he and his friends high-five each other as their deftly laid-out plans work remarkably well, things begin to go awry. People are dying - former witnesses and then, suddenly, new ones.

After a complicated series of events, including the return of a former heartthrob of Trado's who needs their help, everything Venturi has built begins to fall apart. As Venturi and Trado try to figure out who is stalking the people they've sought to save, Venturi finds himself on the wrong side of the law, with a bevy of forces threatening him and the new woman in his life.

Buchanan writes in crisp, reportorial prose, propelling the action forward at appropriately page-turning speed. Fans of the Montero series will find Venturi a quite different but equally engaging detective. Like most male sleuths, he has a tragic back story - his pregnant wife was killed in a terrible accident. Emotionally damaged, he enjoys his solitary life in the Everglades and evades Danny's wife Luz's efforts at matchmaking until he meets Keri.

Legally Dead is over the top, but then so is Miami. Venturi is a strong character, and while some of Buchanan's supporting cast seem repetitively similar, the central characters have real spark . Legally Dead opens the door to a new detective for Buchanan and a new treat for her many fans.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the award-winning mystery collections "Out for Blood" and "Night Bites." She also writes the Madison MacKenna young adult mystery series. She is at work on a novel about Leon Trotsky's exile in Mexico. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

excerpt

"I trusted him," Venturi said later. Keri had joined him and Victoria at the house for a quiet dinner. The earlier transitions, farewells and departures had been celebratory. Nobody celebrated this one. "I should have followed my gut," he said. "I knew it was too risky and could turn ugly. I can tell you that my hair stood on end more than once. I should have quit when we were ahead." "Love and lust." Keri took his hand. "When sex or money is involved, trust no one."

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