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The Alibi by Sandra Brown
(Warner, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-51980-4
****
The Alibi is a difficult book to rate. My dilemma is complicated by my concern that what I like the best about the book may not be as interesting to other readers. Readers who are looking for a solid romance with loads of sexual tension (at which best-selling author Sandra Brown is a past master) are likely to be disappointed. Readers who want a gripping mystery with a strong whodunit flavor are also likely to feel dissatisfied.

The aspect of the book that I found the most compelling is the hero’s internal struggle. The hero is caught in a moral dilemma. Is he willing to provide an alibi for the prime suspect in a murder investigation at the risk of his career prospects?

Hammond Cross is an Assistant County Solicitor (an assistant district attorney in other states) in Charleston, South Carolina. Born into a well-to-do family, he has been at cross-purposes with his father over his career direction. His father disapproves of his decision to be a prosecutor because of the lower income level in public service.

On a Saturday evening, Hammond makes an impulsive stop at a county fair. At the dance pavilion he notices a striking woman across the crowded floor. When she is harassed by three drunken servicemen, Hammond extricates her by pretending to be her lover. They do the carnival together, but in spite of the strong attraction between them she insists on leaving. Hammond follows her to a gas station where he convinces her to accompany him to his near-by cabin. After a night of lovemaking that eclipses any he’s ever experienced before, the woman disappears. He never even learned her name.

Meanwhile, the police have begun the investigation into the murder of real estate magnate Lute Pettijohn. Pettijohn has been shot in a luxury suite in his new luxurious hotel. Heading the investigation is Detective Rory Smilow, once Pettijohn’s brother-in-law.

When Hammond returns to Charleston, he ends his sometime relationship with fellow Assistant Solicitor, Steffi Mundell. Even more ambitious than Hammond, Steffi hopes to be in charge of the prosecution of Pettijohn’s murderer. But the not-very-grieving widow and Hammond’s childhood friend insists that he be assigned. The current County Solicitor is retiring and is backing Hammond to succeed him. This case could establish his career. In the end, Steffi is assigned to join Hammond on the case as well because of antagonism between Hammond and Detective Smilow.

Police question all the people who were at the hotel at the time of the murder. One man had observed a woman down the hall. The police artist’s sketch is clearly that of a psychologist, Dr. Alex Ladd, who Hammond recognizes as his mystery woman.

When questioned by the police, Alex’s explanation for her visit to Pettijohn is weak and unconvincing. She does not mention having been with Hammond, and her supposed alibi turns out to be a lie. Steffi and Smilow want to arrest her, but Hammond resists, arguing that he is not convinced that their case is strong enough. Rather than confess that he spent the night with Alex and that he is her alibi, he embarks on an independent investigation to exonerate her.

As the investigation continues to point to Alex as the killer, Hammond is increasingly forced to compromise his ethics in order to protect his professional future.

Sandra Brown’s novels often feature a hero and a heroine whose secrets and personal agendas place them in opposition even as they are helpless to resist the hot sexual attraction between them. My personal picks for her best are Mirror Image and French Silk. When it comes to writing terrific sexual tension, Ms. Brown has few rivals. Sure, the hero and heroine are always physically gorgeous, but their attraction is rarely based on simply their appearance. The love scenes in The Alibi are raw, tender, and sometimes humorous. Hammond and Alex seem to be characters that ought to be right for each other. They’re equals -- both educated, dedicated, successful.

So why do I feel dissatisfied? Possibly because the character of Alex Ladd is given insufficient weight. This is Hammond’s story, and Alex, who has her own personal dilemmas to handle, is more a placeholder than a fully developed character. She exists primarily to provide Hammond with a crisis of conscience. Alex has the potential to be a multi-dimensional character, but she remains mostly undeveloped.

Or possibly because all the love scenes seem to have been included because of a set formula --“story must contain 1 love scene per every 75 pages”-- rather than as a natural result of the story progression. Several of the requisite love scenes are presented in flashback which further distances them from the immediate action.

Similarly, I didn’t find myself very caught up in the murder mystery. Lute Pettijohn is one of those victims whose lack of morals and sleazy lifestyle provide numerous characters with a motive for murder. Furthermore, the book contains an assortment of unsympathetic characters who might very well act on that motive. There are a number of minor subplots that do little to advance the main plot. As for the identify of the killer, I had to think a moment to remember when I started this review. Whodunit? Who cares?

So why am I recommending a book when the majority of my review is negative? Because I found Hammond’s gradual descent into his moral morass to be an engrossing story line. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” could be the theme of this plot. When this book makes its way to a TV movie, I’m afraid this story line will be sacrificed for the murder mystery. That would be unfortunate because it saves the book.

Moreover, The Alibi passed the put down/pick up test with flying colors. Even though I put it down to go to bed at 10:00, I was back up again at 2:00 a.m. to finish it. I wish I could say that The Alibi is a worthy successor to some of the author’s previous books, but regardless of any reservations I might have, I’ve got to recommend a book that makes it impossible for me to sleep until I finish it.

--Lesley Dunlap


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