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Don't Talk To Strangers

Hear No Evil by Bethany Campbell
(Bantam, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-553-57688-7
I'm not sure why Bantam keeps releasing Bethany Campbell's dark romantic suspense novels during the holiday season. I guess they're an antidote for all of those cheery, light-hearted "love and laughter" romances that crowd the bookshelves this time of year. If, like me, you are perverse enough to enjoy reading about murder and terror in the midst of the season of peace on earth, you'll want to check out Hear No Evil.

The novel grabs the reader from the first page. An unnamed woman travels through the Miami airport with a bomb in her suitcase. Her target is a flight from Miami to the Bahamas. The scene then quickly shifts to California, where Eden Storey, an actress known for her talented voice-overs, receives a disturbing phone call from an unexpected source. Her Grandmother Jessie, who raised her and her sister Mimi, has suffered a bad fall and has been hospitalized. A woman has shown up at Jessie's house with a six-year old girl, claiming that the child is Mimi's daughter. Eden is especially surprised to realize that the man calling her is Owen Charteris, former Golden Boy in Eden's Arkansas hometown. She can't imagine why he would be associated with Jessie, an uneducated woman who barely ekes out a living operating a psychic phone line.

Although she left Arkansas as soon as she reached 18, Eden can't ignore her grandmother's summons. When she visits Jessie in the hospital, the old woman demands that Eden utilize her acting skills and take over her psychic hotline until Jessie recovers. She also needs Eden to take care of Peyton, the strange girl who may be her niece.

Reluctantly, Eden agrees, but she realizes something sinister is going on. A woman named Constance calls the hotline repeatedly and seems to know a dangerous secret. Peyton is terrified and traumatized when Eden questions her about her life with Mimi. Gradually the suspense increases as Eden realizes that she and Peyton may be in danger even though her caller refuses to reveal the details of her explosive secret. At the same time, Eden is attracted to Owen, despite the despair that surrounds the man who lost his beloved wife to cancer several years earlier.

As I said, this book is not a lighthearted romp. Both Eden and Owen are wounded, isolated characters who are reluctant to connect with other people. Their relationship is tentative and tormented and their happily ever after is only hinted at. Another major character is on an end-of-the-read suicidal joyride, reminiscent of Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. There is less explicit violence than in Campbell's previous novel, but enough to be disturbing.

The tension mounts as the reader tries to piece together the connection between the woman on the plane, Mimi, Constance, Peyton and Eden. There is a bit of a letdown, however, as the truth unfolds. The motive behind the villains' behavior is not revealed until the very last pages, making their actions disappointedly one-dimensional - albeit chillingly evil. Nonetheless, I devoured this book in two sittings. Two years ago I recommended Campbell's Don't Talk to Strangers. I recommend her current book with the same caveat: if you don't like "romance noir," stay far away from Hear No Evil. But if you can stand the gloom and thrive on suspense, you will not be disappointed.

--Susan Scribner

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