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Night Kills by Charlotte Hughes
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-79220-6
Charlotte Hughes' latest mystery/suspense novel was a disappointing read. It featured a good mystery but lacked the unique Southern gothic flavor of her two previous novels, Valley of the Shadow and After That, the Dark.

Lee Cates has been estranged from her older sister Lucy for some time. Years ago, Lucy ran off and eloped without her parents' blessing. Her husband turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. When he died in a house fire, Lucy decided that living well was the best revenge. She used her husband's life insurance money to pay for plastic surgery on her battered face. She emerged from the surgery as a beautiful but bitter woman. She had multiple affairs with married men, claiming she would never again be trapped in a permanent relationship. She turned her back on Lee and her parents, claiming that they hadn't helped her enough when she was trying to survive her abusive marriage.

So Lee is shocked to receive a phone call in the middle of the night from Stevie, Lucy's adopted teenaged son, claiming that his mother is the victim of a shockingly brutal murder. Someone has carved up Lucy's face with a great deal of malice and then stabbed her in the heart. At first, the police suspect Stevie, who has displayed behavioral problems at school and home. Then evidence points in a new direction.

Jack McCall is a disbarred attorney who has spent the past two years drinking himself into a stupor. A few nights ago, he met Lucy in a bar and took her home. He woke up later in a strange motel room, remembering nothing. But his fingerprints are all over Lucy's house and he is the prime suspect in her murder.

Lee is determined to make sure that Jack pays for the heinous crime he committed, but Jack insists he is innocent. Meanwhile, as Lee struggles to make a home for her orphaned nephew, strange things start happening that lead Lee to believe that the violence hasn't ended yet, and that her sister's murder may not be an open and shut case after all. In fact, it appears that someone means her harm as well.

Charlotte Hughes' previous two novels were written with a delightfully Southern Gothic flavor and a strong atmospheric sense of place. Night Kills starts out strong, with Lee's shockingly funny half-awake musings before she receives the fateful phone call from Stevie. But after that, the Southern spirit is strangely muted, and the reader is left with a standard melodrama.

Lee is typical Hughes heroine quick-tempered, independent and smart-mouthed but also warm-hearted. She grieves for the loss of her sister and worries incessantly about her nephew. She is slow to believe Jack's protestations of innocence (when they first meet, at the police station, she knees him in the groin). Jack has thrown his life away, but now that he is facing the death penalty if convicted, her realizes he must fight for his life. Luckily (and a bit too coincidentally), he has just inherited a fortune so he has resources to win over the town while he tries to convince Lee he wants to help her. It strained my credibility, however, when the principal of Stevie's high school asked Jack an accused murderer to be a chaperone at a school dance. And at times, Jack's dogged pursuit of Lee bordered on stalking; if he were wiser, he would have helped Lee by keeping his distance and postponing the romance until after the real murderer was found. Oh well, this is romantic suspense after all and sometimes rational behavior is not required.

The mystery is well plotted. I was sure I knew the identity of the murderer early on in the novel, but Hughes had a few surprises up her sleeve, including an odd twist at the end. The end result is an acceptable, but somber novel that lacks the spark of Hughes' earlier mysteries.

Night Kills is below average for Charlotte Hughes but a good read compared to many other suspense authors. I'll be on the lookout for her next novel; I'm sure she still has a lot of interesting writing ahead of her.

--Susan Scribner

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