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ON CRIME

Two dead Roses, tangled roots, and a thorny real-life case

A Field of Darkness
By Cornelia Read
Mysterious, 320 pp., $22.95

Family Matters
By Ira Berkowitz
Justin, Charles, 312 pp., $24.95

Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine
By Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora
University Press of New England, 265 pp., $26

Sparks seem to fly off the pages of Cornelia Read's ``A Field of Darkness," a stylishly written debut novel. There's more than a hint of Sue Grafton as narrator Madeline ``Maddie" Dare introduces herself: ``I'm five-five but lie and add an inch on my driver's license." But Maddie, a former debutante descended from ``a herd of failed Kennedys," is a one-off, much more interesting than a Syracuse, N.Y.-based Kinsey Millhone. A food writer for a local paper, she's married to hunky Dean, who is descended from failed farmers (his mother, Maddie tells us, has ``a serious weakness for Holsteins"). The culture clash that the marriage produces is more like a demolition derby. Powered by a sensational narrator's voice and lively characterizations, scenes in which Maddie has to deal with her aptly named family members (Bonwit and Binty) or in-laws (Wimpy and Weasel) are a hoot.

Against this backdrop, Maddie finds herself investigating the decades-old unsolved murder of a pair of young women dubbed ``the Rose Girls." Their carefully posed bodies, garlanded with roses, were found in a nearby field. Dog tags, recently plowed up, implicate Lapthorne Townsend, an older cousin and man-about-town on whom Maddie has long had a serious crush.

I do have some qualms. The usual why-doesn't-she-call-in-the-cops question is never satisfactorily answered, and the plot loses its way in the middle. But just when it's circling the drain, the story regains its momentum, and the finish packs a wallop of action and surprise. Read is a big talent; lucky for us, she's chosen to write crime fiction.

A far less satisfying first effort is Ira Berkowitz's ``Family Matters." This police procedural gets off to a strong start with a nameless police officer going about a meticulous morning ritual that ends with a bang.

Flash back three months, and we meet protagonist Jackson Steeg, a police detective who's been unfairly suspended from the force. He's the prototypical jaded cop with a fatherly soft spot for a waif who lives upstairs. Steeg's father is an alcoholic police captain nearing retirement, and his brother is a ruthless gangster. The setting is a gritty, violent corner of Hell's Kitchen replete with thugs and homeless people.

Unable to keep his cop's instincts in check when a woman is murdered in the apartment below his, Steeg bulls his way into the crime scene. With the help of his partner, a Jamaican female cop who tries to keep him from torpedoing his career, he soon discovers that the victim's mother was murdered decades earlier. Frustrated by what he sees as police inaction, Steeg starts his own investigation. His apartment is trashed and he's threatened, but that only makes him more determined to find the truth.

Like any good noir, this one's got illicit drugs, prostitution, corruption, plus a healthy dose of fire and brimstone. Berkowitz does a good job conveying a burnt-out cop, but he's way out of his depth getting inside a little girl witnessing violence, or a woman being attacked in her apartment. These pivotal scenes are thin and unconvincing. Sorry, but it's a fantasy that a woman gets sexually aroused while she's being assaulted.

The basic story at the core of this novel, one of family tragedy and revenge, had terrific potential and could have packed a powerful emotional punch.

``Finding Amy" is a first foray into true crime by novelist Kate Clark Flora. She partners with Joseph K. Loughlin, police detective with the Portland, Maine, Police Department, to tell the story of a murder investigation. The story unfolds with Loughlin's first-person accounts from his vantage point, in charge of the investigation, alternating with Flora's third-person narrative.

It begins six weeks after 9/11, a time when already overworked Portland police are being run ragged chasing down reports of white powder. Twenty-five-year-old Amy St. Laurent's mother reports her missing. Police develop a profile of the missing girl: reliable, well liked, a devoted pet owner -- an unlikely runaway. Officers soon become obsessed, first with finding Amy, then with bringing her killer to justice.

Flora and Loughlin take the reader step by step through the excruciating details of months of grueling investigation, from frustrations and dead ends to exhilarating breakthroughs. The tale is brimming with insights about police procedure, jurisdictional disputes, and politics. Over and over again, real life trumps fiction. For instance, after a five-hour standoff, the suspect surrenders one of his guns for a soda, the other for a cigarette. Put that in a novel and no one would believe it.

The story will appeal to readers fascinated by the minutiae of police procedure -- I confess, I'm one. Its one flaw is that passages from the co-authors too often cover the same ground rather than providing complementary views. Its greatest strength: The reader is never allowed to lose sight of the humanity of the victim, a young girl who accepted a ride from the wrong guy, then had the temerity to say no and mean it.

Hallie Ephron is the author of the Edgar-nominated ``Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style." Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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