The Alibi



The Switch


White Hot by Sandra Brown
(Simon & Schuster, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-7432-4553-9
Perhaps it’s all that heat, humidity, and rotting organic swamp matter because when it comes to dysfunctional families the South has it way over every other region of the country. William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams are not the only authors to have plumbed the fertile depths of family relationships sunk into hatred and depravity in Tara-wannabe mansions. And wide-spread use of air-conditioning and the rise of the economy of the New South haven’t changed things much. If you’ve ever watched Dallas, you know what I mean.

Sandra Brown has set several of her novels in the contemporary South (for example, The Alibi, Fat Tuesday), and those old traditions are alive and well. Patriarchs rule with an iron fist. Women cheat on their cheating husbands. Siblings take rivalry to new heights ... or depths.

I have one question: if these people despise each other so much, why do they all live under the same roof?

Sayre Lynch returns to Destiny, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. In that time she has had no contact whatsoever with her family, her father and two brothers. She is presently a successful interior designer in San Francisco. (Have you ever noticed how many runaways these families produce, how they all flee to other regions of the country and usually become amazingly successful?) She has returned for her younger brother Danny’s funeral.

Huff Hoyle (as indication of his paternal sentiments, he’s called ‘Huff’ rather than ‘Daddy’ by his children) is the patriarch of this family. He is the owner of the foundry, the town’s largest employer. (He came by it in the old-fashioned way: he married the boss’s daughter.) In classic manner, he oversees the business like an antebellum plantation owner. He cares nothing for worker health or safety; he counters any attempt at unionizing by firing wavering employees and defies OSHA regulations with abandon.

Chris is his older favorite son, cut from his father’s mold. He’s separated from his wife and devoting much of his time and energy to womanizing. The middle child, Sayre, as a girl was not considered equal to her brother by Huff so resorted to rebellious and outrageous behavior as a teen. Danny was the youngest; recently he had acquired religion which had put him at odds with his father and brother.

Sayre (she’s adopted her mother’s maiden name after the second of her divorces) is only intending to slip in for Danny’s funeral and leave the same day. (Can you tell me how she thinks she’s going to maintain anonymity wearing a black dress and wide-brimmed black hat – funeral or no - in the middle of a Louisiana summer? She may as well wear a neon sign flashing, “I’m baaaack!”)

She is approached by Beck Merchant, a college fraternity brother of Chris’s who’s now serving as legal counsel to the Hoyles and the business. She is asked to attend the wake but declines. It isn’t until Beck informs her that the sheriff is questioning the ruling of suicide and investigating Danny’s death as a homicide that she decides to stay.

There are more problems for the Hoyles and Beck Merchant than just the homicide investigation. Labor activist Charles Nielson is fomenting unrest among the workers. There are still doubts about Chris’s guilt in the murder of another man several years earlier. The sheriff’s on the take, and a new deputy is turning over rocks.

Inevitably, Sayre gets sucked back into this quagmire of family dynamics and dirty dealings. Not to mention that she can’t resist being attracted to the sexy Beck even though he is in tight with her relatives.

White Hot has a lot of those elements that make for a good pot-boiler: murder, intrigue, deceit, illicit passion. Good stuff. There are some glaring holes in the plot, but the story line’s strong momentum makes them easy to overlook.

The weak, too neatly wrapped up ending is a larger flaw and the reason White Hot isn’t receiving a recommended rating. Obviously, it’s going to be necessary to redeem Beck or Sayre’s going to end up lonely. A Tennessee Williams’ ending with everyone still miserable, dead, or hauled off to the mental hospital just isn’t going to happen in a Sandra Brown novel. Tying up all the loose ends, convenient demises, and deep dark secrets revealed all in a matter of a few pages don’t make for a satisfactory ending.

Nevertheless, this is a book that will appeal to many. It’s the kind of book that gets carted to the beach and devoured with relish by readers who will be thankful their family problems are minor in comparison to the Hoyle’s. If you’ve enjoyed Sandra Brown books in the past, you’re going to enjoy this one, too.

--Lesley Lawrence

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