Princess Charming by Jane Heller
(Kensington, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-57566-261-2
***
The Love Boat soon will be making another run. The Love Boat promises something for everyone. If you were a fellow fan of that "romance in a heartbeat" television series of the 70's, you will get a kick out of Princess Charming.

Elaine Zimmerman and her two friends have taken an annual vacation together ever since they met in divorce court. At the time, Elaine was divorcing the mortician husband she never loved after she caught him in flagrante delico with a corpse makeup expert. This year, to Elaine's dismay, the "Three Blonde Mice" are taking a Caribbean cruise. Elaine is resigned to the choice, figuring she can read a few books and catch a few rays. The other Blonde Mice, sassy Jackie and sweet Pat, are much more enthusiastic.

Surprisingly it's Elaine who has the best luck in the romance department. At the first dinner on the cruise, she finds herself seated with a dark, handsome insurance salesman named Sam who seems to share her instant attraction. Elaine starts to believe that the true love she scoffed at all her life may actually have found her.

But then one stormy night, Elaine overhears a phone conversation between two men that makes her wonder if her Prince Charming is not what he seems. Apparently someone on board has been hired by an angry ex-husband to murder a divorced woman on the ship. Of course, there must be plenty of divorced women on board. There's no need to be nervous, really. Except that Elaine is by nature suspicious, and there are several men who just keep popping up in the Three Blonde Mice's path in the most coincidental way.

The first half of the novel, written in Elaine's snappy first person narrative, is strong. Because of a prologue setting up the murder plot, the reader is aware of the danger to Elaine and her friends long before Elaine catches on, and thus each masculine encounter appears deliciously ominous. Heller does a good job at describing the pleasures of a cruise – something that has never been high on my list of priorities. Sam is a more than adequate hunky hero complete with a mysterious identity and tragic past.

But once Elaine uncovers the plot, her actions are somewhat illogical, including her offhand decision to trust Sam without question and her refusal to enlighten her girlfriends about the danger. The first person narrative prevents the reader from getting to know the other two Blonde Mice. Thus the danger to them doesn't fully engage the reader.

The ending redeems the novel, and the identity of the hit man is especially clever. The overall result is a lighthearted romp where love conquers all, the body count is negligible and the evil ex-husband is triumphantly vanquished. I hear they're reviving The Love Boat for television…maybe they should ask Jane Heller to write the first script.

--Susan Scribner


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