Absolutely, Positively

Deep Waters

Eye of the Beholder


Sharp Edges

As Jayne Castle





As Amanda Quick


I Thee Wed



With This Ring

Soft Focus by Jayne Ann Krentz
(Putnam, $23.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-399-14578-8
Jayne Ann Krentz tries something a little different in her newest release, Soft Focus. For one, she pretty much breaks free of the "Seattle, Latte Capital of the World" chains that pervaded her recent works; for another, she surrounds her story with a grittier atmosphere. Many of her fans will absolutely love this book. And while it didn't all work for me, there were parts of it I truly admired.

The story opens with business consultant Jack Fairfax and venture-capital fund manager Elizabeth Cabot meeting up at a posh Seattle business club. Jack barely has time to reflect on their previous night's disastrous romantic interlude before an infuriated Elizabeth dumps a pitcher of ice water over his head. Elizabeth has just discovered that Jack managed the destruction of a company to which she had personal ties. Now they are contracted to work together on a company called Excalibur, a small research firm that may have developed the next generation of computer technology: a crystal named Soft Focus. Elizabeth's fund has given Excalibur money and she sits on the board. Jack is trying to keep the company, and her investment, from sinking.

Six months later, as Soft Focus is about to be presented to a major financial backer, both the crystal and its developer disappear. Jack knows he must find Dr. Page and Soft Focus or Excalibur will go under. His only clue is that Tyler Page was a film noir buff and had recently invested money in a small film called Fast Company. The film is due to be screened at a film noir festival in Mirror Springs, Colorado. Jack deduces that Tyler Page won't want to miss the film's only premiere. Elizabeth isn't about to let Jack off the hook, and before you can say "low-budget flick", the two of them are off to Colorado together.

Jack and Elizabeth will have their work cut out for them. Plenty of people would like to get their hands on Soft Focus, and the author does a fine job of hiding the culprit. I was certainly led down the primrose path, anyway. The dark, vaguely surrealistic aura of the film noir genre, with its attendant fringies and fanatics, permeates the story. The tone is done to perfection, and ultimately what is the book's strongest point turns into its Achilles heel.

For while the setting and tone are masterful and the mystery credible, the romance is rather stark. Oh, the sex scenes are hot enough, don't get me wrong, but Jack and Elizabeth's relationship feels perfunctory and somewhat murky, overshadowed (or perhaps suffocated) by the film noir mood. Elizabeth spends so much time being, well, a frigid witch that we don't get much glimpse of what makes her tick. I was left with the feeling that her attraction to Jack was purely sexual. As for Jack, he fares somewhat better because more of the story is told from his point of view, but even so, I couldn't really see why he was attracted to Elizabeth. As a reader, the attempts to jump from the dark tones of the film stuff to the heat of the romance just didn't work that well.

What did work well were the secondary characters. The "Hollywood-as-cesspit" crowd is balanced by Jack's and Elizabeth's relatives and friends, all of whom have a part to play.

If you are a Krentz fan, you'll likely be pleased with Soft Focus. It was refreshing to see what this author could do with a different kind of tone, and while the romance was unconvincing, the rest of the story was strong and polished. It deserves a look.

--Cathy Sova

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