East of Peculiar

South of Sanity

West of Bliss by Suzann Ledbetter
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-55166-925-0
This is a busy, scattergun sort of a story. Some shots hit the mark and others don’t, but it’s a fast-paced book that will entertain without strain if you’re looking for light vacation fare.

Sheriff David Hendrickson wants to marry Hannah Garvey. Unfortunately their discussion of this momentous topic - like their heretofore-unsuccessful attempts to gain carnal knowledge of each other - is interrupted. There’s been a jailbreak and David is needed for the manhunt.

Next day, while Hannah is pondering David’s proposal, she gets a call from Jack Clancy, her friend and the owner of the retirement community where she is resident manager. Jack’s going out of town and wants her to stand in for him at a farewell dinner for Eulilly and Chet Thomlinson. He knows Hannah and Eulilly detest each other but he promises the function will end early.

And it does, when a man wielding an automatic weapon bursts into the party and starts shooting. Before Sheriff David can get a shot off, Chet Thomlinson jumps into his line of fire and shoots the attacker with a gun no one knew Chet was carrying. When the smoke clears, Eulilly is dead and two of Hannah’s senior citizens are seriously wounded.

That’s bare bones; there’s more, plus information about what happened to these folks in Ms. Ledbetter’s first two books for those of us who haven’t read them. The inclusion of the background material is done with mixed success - at first I thought this story was going to be told in flashbacks - and although the book does stand alone, I still felt like I’d arrived halfway through the party.

One of the best things about West of Bliss is the relationship between Hannah and David. Their personalities are lively and distinctive, and their interaction has a lot of energy and genuine emotional contact. David is a real charmer as well as a hunk, and Hannah, for all her tough exterior, seems like a smart girl and a real person. Which made all the dithering about whether or not to marry David deeply annoying.

She describes him as her best friend, her soul mate and the man she loves beyond reason. He’s the smartest, sexiest man she’s ever known, the world’s best kisser and he makes her laugh. He looks equally great in his sheriff’s uniform and a tux, and he thinks the seven year difference in their ages (she’s 43, he’s 36) is absolutely perfect.

Her reasons for hesitating? She can’t cook. She knows he’ll regret marrying someone who’s outgrown the desire to have babies. He’ll want to live in the great little house he’s renovating and she’s the “resident” manager of the retirement community. Yeah, those certainly sound like insurmountable problems to me. Kinda takes the shine off our girl’s intelligence.

The author seems to realize that these lame excuses aren’t going to hold up for long so at about the halfway point, after Hannah and David finally do the deed (very satisfactorily, thank you very much), the romance fades into the background and the post-murder capers take over.

There are plenty of suspects and lots of people who want to play detective. It’s very energetic but, towards the end, the rising crescendo of bedlam got a little confusing. David and his official cohorts conduct a professional and quite interesting investigation (nothing wrong with his brain), and the wacky senior citizens pratfall their way through the scenery. I loved the fact that they were out there finding love and adventure, but none of them seemed too bright, so they tended to come off as caricatures rather than characters.

The whole book has a sassy charm that I found very entertaining at the beginning but which eventually started to wear a bit thin. Humor is at its best when it’s a surprise; when it becomes predictable, it loses its charm. A more judicious hand with the one-liners would solve this problem.

So do take this book to the beach with you. You’ll have fun - and probably so will the next person when you leave it lying around somewhere.

--Judi McKee

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