Valley of the Shadow by Charlotte Hughes
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-78454-8
I'm not sure that 4 hearts is the right rating to give Charlotte Hughes' sophomore effort. How about 4 dead bodies? Valley of the Shadow is notable for its wisecracking heroine and well-plotted, intricate mystery. While the romance is a little more prominent than the one in Hughes' debut, And After That, The Dark, it is still primarily a suspense novel in the tradition of Barbara Michaels or Mary Higgins Clark.

Meg Gentry returns to her home in Blalock, Tennessee, with her tail between her legs. Her short marriage to an Atlanta detective has recently ended in a humiliating manner after Meg discovered her husband was a cross-dressing homosexual. She has resigned her job as crime reporter for the Atlanta Journal. Armed only with a smart mouth and an ancient avocado green camper, she comes home to decide her next move.

She is lucky enough to land a temporary job at the Blalock Gazette while the managing editor deals with a drinking problem. But all is not rosy. Meg's sleazy cheatin' brother-in-law comes on a little too strong, her mother is as annoying as ever, and Meg has to face her high-school sweetheart, Clay, whom she dumped years ago in her hurry to get away from Blalock. Then things start getting downright weird. The former managing editor is found dead, ostensibly a suicide. As Meg follows a human interest story involving a man who was miraculously cured of blindness she stumbles upon a strange religious cult, and a young woman who desperately needs her help. Clay finds a human skeleton that has been buried for twenty years. Meg tries to make sense of all of this, her sister's marital crisis, her mother's strange behavior and her inevitable attraction to Clay, but the body count isn't over yet...

Charlotte Hughes writes with a wonderfully twisted, Southern gothic sense of humor and pathos that often leaves the reader laughing and grimacing on the same page. She's more macabre than Michaels and develops more interesting characters than Clark. Her portrayal of the small town Tennessee life as well as the poverty and ignorance experienced by many of the folk who live higher up in the mountains is right on target. She has a winner of a heroine in Meg, whose smart mouth can't quite hide the vulnerable woman underneath. And somehow she manages to tie together the separate mysteries into one logical, if creepy resolution.

My only complaint relates to extraneous characters. I could have done without the small glimpses into the lives of Meg's mother, father, ex-husband and co-worker, whose subplots were too sketchy to be satisfying. But that's a minor quibble. Once I started Valley of the Shadow, I raced through it in record time, thanks to a few late nights and early mornings. After only two releases, Charlotte Hughes joins my "A" list of contemporary suspense authors.

--Susan Scribner

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