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The Target by Catherine Coulter
(Putnam, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-399-14395-5
Of late, buying a Catherine Coulter book is sometimes an iffy proposition. It's a little like buying that package of pantyhose, the ones marked seconds. Will there be two legs? Will the feet be going in the same direction? Or maybe they'll be identical to the $10 ones. Will Coulter's story bore me? Frustrate me? Captivate me? Well, this time I'm wearing the $10 pantyhose. And I am captivated.

The Target is another in Coulter's law enforcement series. Federal Judge Ramsey Hunt becomes an instant hero when he disarms gunmen intent on killing jury members in his courtroom. The notoriety is so painful that he takes a sabbatical and seeks solace in a Colorado mountain cabin. His idyllic rest is shattered when he discovers an unconscious child, a little girl who has been badly beaten. Soon Ramsey discovers that the girl has been abused, sexually and emotionally. He imagines all sorts of horrible scenarios to explain her condition. Was she abused at home? Is she a kidnapping victim? What?

Ramsey forms a tenuous bond with the child who has yet to utter a word. No doubt he breaks a few local, state and federal laws when he does not contact the police or the FBI. Not knowing what kind of situation he'd be putting the girl in, he vows to keep her safe.

His resolution is tested when gunmen, in the guise of drunken hunters, are able to wound him before he outguns them and sends them fleeing. Things aren't looking too good when another person arrives, also with a gun. This time it's the child's mother, Molly Santera, who assumes that Ramsey is her daughter's kidnapper. Emma, speaking for the first time, diffuses the situation and explains that Ramsey is her salvation. But how long will he be able to keep Emma and Molly safe? As they become aware that the kidnapping was well-planned and well-executed, with multiple accomplices, Ramsey and Molly have no idea of what they're up against. They just know that Emma is still in terrible danger.

The Target is riddled with improbabilities and questionable events , but it is so fascinating, so riveting that I didn't seem to care. Let me explain some things that kept me from giving this book a five-heart rating. I read the prologue through twice, didn't understand it and then plunged into the book. When I finished, I reread the prologue. It finally made some sense. It's nebulous, with the facts being cloudy, facts that would really help in understanding Ramsey. However, the reader has to ferret out information and piece Ramsey together, puzzle piece by puzzle piece.

Ramsey is a thirty-four-year-old federal judge in San Francisco. I asked a lawyer friend if this wasn't a little too young to have this powerful lifetime position. Here's her reply:

Federal Judges are appointed, and although the names usually come from a short list furnished by the Bar Association, presidents are not bound by it. For most of them it represents a substantial pay cut, but the political appointment is for life and the power and prestige has its lure, especially for trust fund babies. Thirty-four is way, way too young but then politics can also be weird. Coulter even has Ramsey justifying his age to Molly, so we know that she was aware that his age might raise eyebrows.

The biggest problem that I had with The Target is Emma, the six-year-old kidnapping victim. Emma is bright, intuitive and sometimes sounds like an adult in a child's body. Here she is, a child of a wealthy, caring mother and yet she's never been taught to read or even to recognize the letters of the alphabet. What Ramsey accomplishes in just one lesson is incredible. So, why hasn't anybody taught this child to read? She's eager and certainly has the ability.

Emma is almost the picture perfect child. At one point Ramsey teases her and asks if she'll behave like a typical kid and maybe throw a tantrum or gripe about going to bed. Emma agrees to consider his request!

After a harrowing escape, Emma asks Ramsey, "You won't leave, will you, Ramsey?...You don't know if you should tell me the truth. It's all right. Everybody lies. Except Mama. She never lies."

When Emma offers comfort to Ramsey, I was just glad that the end of the book was near. This kid is just too unbelievable.
Consoling Ramsey, Emma was patting his arms. "It's going to be all right, Ramsey. We'll get through this, I promise."

Ramsey, much like Dillon Savich from The Maze, is a complex hero. However, Coulter uses very little emotional point of view glimpses. It's hard to determine deeper motivations. Dillon and his wife, Lacey Sherlock Savich, make an extended appearance and are as delightful in this book as they were in The Maze.

This story is plot driven with limited points of view. Ramsey and Molly's relationship is secondary, while survival and disclosure seem to be the main thrusts. Overlook Emma's inconsistencies, and this is a dynamite book, so much so that I found myself think about it during odd moments.

The Target is almost a bulls-eye.

--Linda Mowery

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