And Then You Die by Iris Johansen
(Bantam, $22.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-10616-3
And Then You Die is the newest thriller by the talented Ms. Johansen and although it contains many of the elements that made her previous thrillers, Long After Midnight and The Ugly Duckling both exciting reads, this story suffers from an identity crisis. While the first half of this tale is a terrific thrill ride, the second half can't seem to decide whether it should remain a thrill ride or turn into a romance. In addition, there are a few salient plot points that just don't make a lot of sense.

Bess Grady is a photojournalist haunted by her last tragic assignment; an assignment that forced her to photograph slaughtered children in a Croatian orphanage. So months later when a travel magazine asks her to go to a small Mexican village and shoot the local color she accepts, thinking that it will be restful and uncomplicated. Wrong. Traveling to Mexico plunges Bess into a nightmare that is all too eerily familiar another town full of dead bodies.

The evil Colonel Rafael Esteban takes Bess prisoner, and she quickly discovers that he is responsible for deliberately and diabolically killing innocents with a deadly anthrax-based virus. She also finds out that Mexico was only the testing ground for his grand scheme of biological terrorism. Bess has had enough of monsters winning and innocents dying and she takes it upon herself to destroy this particular monster. That is, if Esteban doesn't kill her first.

Ms. Johansen has taken the text of this pretty farfetched, but wonderfully imaginative, tale right from the headlines of recent news stories concerning terrorists, biological warfare and the anthrax virus. I very much enjoyed the first half of And Then You Die; it's a first-rate, fast-paced thrill ride. Unfortunately, the second half of this book seems to go into another direction entirely as the focus turns from thriller to romance a romance between Bess and a CIA-connected assassin known only as "Kaldak."

While I usually love a strong romantic thread in any kind of tale, I felt like I was reading two separate books. Everything seems different after the romance takes over the story line; the tone, the language, seems completely out of sync. And too little time or attention is given to the romance; the characterizations of Bess and Kaldak are not fully developed, neither is provided with much more than a sketchy background. There were hints that Kaldak could be an extremely complex and interesting personality, his character definitely deserved more exploration.

Certainly, one of the problems with turning Kaldak into a typical romance hero is that it takes away much of the story's suspense. It's a fairly well known romance truth that a romance hero must be invincible; as long as Kaldak is guarding Bess you know that Bess is never going to be in any real danger. In fact, Esteban's own personal assassin never even attempts to kill Bess while Kaldak's around. Why? Kaldak hasn't been an assassin long enough to merit this kind of awe and respect from other lifelong assassins. It truly doesn't make sense.

Another plot point that doesn't make much sense is the almost daily blood samples Bess is forced to give to the Center for Disease Control. Supposedly, the purpose of drawing the blood samples is so they can be turned over to two doctors/scientists at the CDC, and tests can be run to determine why the virus didn't kill Bess while she was in Mexico. Kaldak takes samples almost daily from Bess. Kaldak is a renaissance kind of assassin in that he also has a medical degree he can kill and cure. Why so many samples when so little blood is needed to run these tests?

Now my background is law, not medicine but that just seemed strange to me so I asked my sister, whose field is medicine, how many samples would be necessary in a situation such as this. My sister assures me that the CDC would most likely require just one blood sample to run all their tests; so if there was a valid medical reason for turning Bess into a human pincushion, the author failed to share it. Certainly, if there was a need for a great deal of blood, it would make more sense to draw a pint at once instead of taking small vials daily, which have to be specially packed and sent by courier to the CDC.

There are other minor problems with the plot, but I can't get into them without giving away a good deal of the twists and surprises and there are lots of twists and surprises. Honestly, I believe that And Then You Die could have, should have been a first-rate thriller. The first half is everything and more that you could ask for in a novel of suspense, but the focus changes too much during the second half of this tale. I know this is going to sound absurd, maybe even blasphemous but Iris Johansen, a romance-writing master, has written an imaginative, intricately plotted, suspenseful thriller and paired it with an unimaginative, trite romance. Go figure.

--Judith Flavell

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