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Now or Never

Sooner or Later by Elizabeth Adler
(Dell/Island, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-22465-9
Set aside a few hours to read Elizabeth Adler's latest book, Sooner or Later; then put your calls, your family, your life on hold. Adler gets your attention on page one and never lets go. She moves quickly and deftly from one main character to another, building suspense in a manner reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's most masterful movies. The unfolding story includes shocking murders and terrifying cat-and-mouse scenarios, coupled with a light dose of sensuality.

If Sooner or Later were strictly romantic fiction, its hero and heroine, Ellie Duveen and Dan Cassidy, would dominate the story. Instead, the focus of the book is often its locations – a San Simeon-style estate, Journey's End, south of Santa Barbara; Dan's "handyman's special" vineyard; Ellie's house; and the cafe where she works to achieve her dreams.

Though engaging, the book's most interesting characters are not Dan and Ellie but her grandmother, Charlotte Amelia Stamford Parrish, and a long-forgotten lunatic, Buck Duveen. Miss Lottie is now in her eighties, experiencing lapses of memory, and with little remaining wealth other than her home. She lives simply with her housekeeper and one beloved old dog.

Ellie's parents were jet-setting, spendthrifts rapidly depleting monies accumulated by generations of Stamford-Parrishes. When they died in an auto accident, Miss Lottie raised Ellie, the lone survivor. Ellie has a vague memory of witnessing an attack on Miss Lottie by a deranged stranger soon after the fatal accident. The little girl and Miss Lottie agree to "forget" those bad memories and move on with their lives, allowing Ellie a nearly normal childhood. After experiencing the freedom of college and honing her chef's skills in France, Ellie returns to California to open her own café.

Nearly ten years older than Ellie, Dan grew up in the same area of California but headed East after a failed marriage to his high-school sweetheart. A New York City homicide detective, Dan avoids post-injury desk-duty by retiring. He sinks his savings into Running Horse Ranch, after seeing a few photos of an idyllic vineyard.

The romantic thread is a rather weak version of workaholics with a city-mouse / country-mouse problem. He is very busy rejuvenating his dying-on-the-vine business, while she works an urban dawn-to-midnight grind. They may be headed for some sort of happily-ever-after, but, this book is not overly concerned with their developing relationship.

Sooner or Later is actually the story of revenge run amok. Whether Patrick Buckland Duveen is inherently evil or incurably crazy is something to ponder long after closing the book. Buck's unprovoked attempt to murder Miss Lottie soon after the death of her daughter and son-in-law results in his civil commitment to a sanitarium in upstate New York. Twenty years later, without explanation, he is released from that prison-like institution and dropped at a local train depot.

Buck immediately begins to carry out his quest for what he believes to be his due, inevitably a road leading back to Journey's End and Miss Lottie. The path he follows and his methods are by turns loathsome and fascinating. His stalking behavior is one reason locations occupy center stage frequently. As is true of all good tales of suspense, the twists, turns and surprises sustain the action.

Despite Elizabeth Adler's strengths as a writer of suspense, Sooner or Later has some weaknesses. From the sanest to the most crazy, the diverse characters seem washed out, fleshed out with watercolors rather than oils. Often the author relies upon one character's observing another character's passion, humor, intrinsic good or evil rather than revealing these traits through action and engaging dialogue.

Sooner or Later suffers by comparison to Adler's own recent books, and, as good as it is, her newest offering is not on a par with last year's Now or Never. Still, that comparison is itself an indication of exceptional writing ability and productivity, evidenced by a steady stream of excellent books.

Sooner or Later is still a must read for fans of Elizabeth Adler, and a good bet for all fans of suspense fiction.

--Sue Klock

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