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Flawed but gripping, 'Heart' goes for the gut

A high school girl is snatched off the streets of Cambridge, and nothing is scarier in Linda Barnes 's new mystery than Paolina Fuentes's chilling ordeal when she is brutally hauled to Colombia and held there for ransom. At one point , Paolina is convinced she has been blinded; then, staring into ``a deep muddy hole, a starless void," she surmises she's trapped in a coffin. It's not quite that grim -- only the claustrophobic trunk of a car.

The teen's abject suffering, dramatized in a few economical chapters interspersed in Barnes's 11th Carlotta Carlyle novel, is piercing and altogether believable fiction. The abduction reaches mercilessly into the feisty private investigator's gut; to her, the kidnapping is both torment and fuel -- she has acted as the girl's big sister for years, and loves her maternally.

``Heart of the World" draws Carlotta away from familiar haunts to Miami and then the frightening underbelly of Bogota. It slashes into the lush jungles of the Sierra Nevada, where the culture of an ancient indigenous tribe is woven into the plot as Carlotta scuffles for information that might lead her to the presumed kidnapper, Paolina's absent father, the notorious drug kingpin Carlos Roldan Gonzales.

This is an ambitious crime novel, intimate and epic, with a scathing political subtext indicting US interventionism and a denouement that erupts with Indiana Jones-like action and derring-do. Few genre writers, or novelists of any stripe, could meet all these challenges with equal force and flair. Maybe only John le Carré and Henning Mankell, in the pantheon of great thriller and crime fiction creators, are up to such multitasking .

But make no mistake, ``Heart of the World" is often gripping and original, and Barnes does many things with practiced style and impressive depth. Carlotta is an attractive and richly idiosyncratic character, almost as true as Sara Paretsky's pluperfect Chicago snoop, V.I. Warshawski. Roldan is an intriguing and seductively charismatic chameleon, and Barnes's family of secondary players -- chiefly Carlotta's mobster lover Sam Gianelli -- are blood-and-bone creations.

Deft psychological insight propels Barnes's sprawling cast of characters and sharpens the best elements of her narrative. Carlotta's longing for family ties, stirred by a pregnancy when she was 14 and expressed in strong attachments to a wide (and sometimes weird) circle of pals, fires her search for Paolina with searing emotion. The book is at its best when it's closest to Carlotta's passions and beliefs, like her improvised anti-macho dictum that ``Heroism is easy. What's goddamn hard is survival . . . Death is quick and final. Survival is long and hard."

Although Barnes does a lot more right than she does wrong, the imperfections of ``Heart of the World" keep it from the seamlessness that distinguishes blue-chip fiction. She is too nimble a writer to compare Carlotta's exhaustion to a ``week-old helium balloon." But so she does; tired tropes like that and a few others insult the invested reader and poison the air of illusion that all good fiction lives on.

Carlotta acknowledges her violent impulses and sometimes channels them into her work, but that hardly justifies the extravagant stunts and gunplay punctuating this mystery. On its own terms, the furious cinematic action is fun, but there's an element of overkill that mocks the best that ``Heart of the World" has to offer.

And that's too bad, since there is so much in this panoramic novel to like.

John Koch can be reached at

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