Spirit Catcher by Elizabeth Hallam
(Jove Books, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-515-12334-X
***
Dallas James, an actress working in a restored Colorado gold-mining town, has seen a ghost. At first, she thinks she is losing her mind, but it's her heart that slips out of control when she realizes she's falling in love with Boone Cantrell, the town sheriff who was murdered 120 years ago.

Boone's spirit survived his untimely death through the magic of his Arapaho mentor, the medicine man Snow Eagle. His return to consciousness is precipitated by the renewed threat to tribal land that lies near the town of Fury, Colorado, where the past and present stories take place. Greed was the cause of Boone's murder, and greed once again threatens the town and Arapaho land when the Icon Corporation returns to finish mining the gold that the Inferno Mining Company discovered in Boone's lifetime.

Boone and Dallas must piece together the past mystery of Boone's murder as well as the present mysteries of rumored buried treasure and efforts by Icon Corporation to buy out the consortium of actors who are restoring the town of Fury.

The story is easy to read and becomes more interesting when the reader realizes it is likely that at least one other ghost may be involved. Dallas is a likable character whose chagrin when she realizes she has "the hots" for a ghost is easy to understand. Boone is appealing, drawn as a good, solid cowboy who likes and respects women (even if he does get a little overprotective for a 90s femme), and is eager to get on with the business of finishing his life, even if he has to do it in the next century.

Their physical relationship is heavily burdened by the difficulties inherent in ghost-human contact. The explanation for their gradual realization that they can, indeed er..... "satisfy" their mutual attraction is not particularly compelling or consistent some times they can touch, some times they can't. On the other hand, the characters make such a nice couple that how they get together becomes less important than the fact that they do.

As for the mystery . . . well, it's not overly sophisticated. For example, Dallas believes that although she knows nothing about investigating crimes, Boone's 120 year-old credentials will enable him to sort through the evidence of 1998-style fraud. And even though saving the town could be affected by the validity of a lease on the Arapaho land, strangely enough no one thinks to check public records until four-fifths of the way through the book.

Ghost stories, like time travel plots, have certain conventions to uphold and explain. Because the basic premise of each is fantastic (in the sense of imaginary or unreal), explanations and plot devices need to be serviceable and consistent, rather than plausible. For me, the chief point of interest in either kind of story is the response of a character who is faced with an unfamiliar and unbelievable reality. I am fascinated with the characters' reactions and adjustments; the stories I like best have characters who demonstrate the kind of personal resilience that allows them to cope with catastrophic cognitive overload, while retaining their resourcefulness and sense of self.

Spirit Catcher does not dwell overmuch on explanations or psychology, but it manages to provide a sufficiently interesting read, nonetheless. It is really something of a mystery-adventure tale, with a ghostly element.

Although it would have taken more imaginative and psychological complexity to make this a keeper for me, the story was competently told, with appealing characters and dialogue that effectively "brought to life" both 19th and 20th century voices. I don't think that fans of an uncomplicated love story, pleasantly told, will be disappointed.

--Bev Hill


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