>Ashes to Ashes
(Bantam, $24.95. PG) ISBN 0-553-10633-3
***
Tami Hoag's latest thriller is gruesome and bleak, with occasional flashes of graveyard humor. She has definitely left the romance world far behind. She creates a suspenseful mystery, but her two lead characters aren't strong enough to emotionally involve the reader.

Two Minneapolis prostitutes have already been murdered by a madman dubbed "The Cremator" because of his gruesome habit of setting fire to his victim's bodies. When a third body this one decapitated is discovered, along with the driver's license of the daughter of a prominent businessman, the hunt for the killer escalates. This time the police may get a break, because a teenaged runaway named Angie claims to have witnessed the most recent cremation. But Angie is a tough, sullen girl who is reluctant to cooperate.

Former FBI agent Kate Conlan is brought on to the case in her current role as victim/witness advocate to support Angie and convince her to help the police. Kate's gruff exterior hides a great deal of pain, fostered by death, heartbreak and scandal in her previous job. She is reluctant to work with Angie but gradually comes to feel a strange empathy for this girl who has no one else on her side.

Kate is wary, but not surprised, when FBI crime expert John Quinn is called in to consult on the case. Kate and John were lovers, briefly, five years ago, and their illicit relationship contributed to the scandal that ended Kate's FBI career. Kate is determined to keep things in the past tense. John, however, has a different agenda.

To catch The Cremator, John assembles a task force comprised of Minneapolis police, FBI agents and county sheriff's officers. They have few suspects and fewer leads. The businessman is putting pressure on the city's mayor to find the killer, but John is worried that any false moves will cause The Cremator to strike again.

The strongest aspect of Ashes to Ashes is the mystery. Hoag presents several viable suspects, then throws in curve balls right and left to keep the reader guessing. In the end, the identity of the killer was a total surprise to me. The task force's investigative process, and the salty dialogue among the task force members, ring true. The growing respect between John and Sam Kovac, the police detective who heads the task force, is well-depicted, as is the antagonistic relationship between law enforcement and the news media.

I was surprised to find that the author of some of my favorite contemporary romances faltered when it came to the relationship between Kate and John. Their scenes together just didn't resonate. I sensed more energy in the dialogue between John and Sam than in the dialogue between the two ex-lovers who allegedly had been soulmates for a brief time.

Ashes to Ashes contains graphically violent scenes of torture and murder that could disturb your sleep (and your waking hours as well). The overall tone is grim and tense. Despite that, I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, and the final 50 pages without remembering to breathe. As a thriller, the novel works. As a romance, it is lacking. Prospective readers will have to decide which of the two is paramount in their priorities.

--Susan Scribner


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