East of Peculiar by Suzann Ledbetter
(Mira, $5.99, G) ISBN 1-55166-597-2
Suzann Ledbetter is a former contributing editor to Family Circle and the author of I Have Everything I Had Twenty Years Ago, Except Now It's All Lower and The Toast Always Lands Jelly-Side Down. I'm sure she's a very funny columnist. But apparently someone forgot to tell her that novels require interesting plots and three-dimensional characters as well as wisecracks. This was a truly disappointing read.

The Missouri Ozarks are rapidly becoming a Mecca for retiring senior citizens, and Ledbetter sets her novel at the fictional Missouri retirement village of Valhalla Springs. Arriving at this idyllic spot is Hannah Garvey, who has taken leave of her fast-track advertising career (and possibly her senses) to be the new resident manager for the complex. She soon meets many colorful, kooky senior citizens and one handsome sheriff. But before she can even settle in to her new job, a Valhalla Springs resident is murdered. Kathleen Osborn was a lifelong spinster and former schoolteacher who was known for her prudence with money. There are many wealthier people living in Valhalla Springs, so if robbery was the motive, why choose Kathleen? And what other motive could there be for killing such a quiet, harmless old lady?

Almost immediately, Hannah is quickly confronted with a group of Valhalla Springs residents who are rarin' to become geriatric P.I.'s to find out the identity of the foul fiend who did this to one of their own. And they've designated Hannah's office as their investigation's headquarters. So between trying to keep her new friends from getting in over their heads, and trying to keep herself from falling for a charming law enforcement officer who is several years her junior, Hannah's former life suddenly starts to look tame by comparison.

The quirkiness of East of Peculiar is too calculated. I may not be ready for retirement yet, but I am offended by the patronizing portrayal of the Valhalla Springs residents as "goofy old people." Colorful characters are one thing, but artificially eccentric elderly are an insult. Here's a typical interaction between Hannah and the group:

"We're going to catch us a killer," Delbert said. "Got a bunch of questions, a list of people to buttonhole, and that's just for starters."
Coffee whooshed into Hannah's windpipe. Over her respiratory distress, Leo added, "Gumshoes we will be. We watch. We listen. We use our noggins. Very hush-hush."
"Anyone want to know what I think about it?" Hannah asked, barely disguising the snarl in her voice.
IdaClare raised a hand. "There's no need to thank us, dear. The police want our help, and if we'd gotten involved sooner, this meeting wouldn't have been necessary. If we'd kept our eyes and ears open, Kathleen would still be with us."
The quartet exchanged sorrowful glances. Hannah waffled between knowing precisely how Custer felt at the Last Stand, and compassion.

I knew I would have trouble with the romance from the moment Hannah was pulled over by Sheriff David Hendrickson for speeding on her second day in town. Here's an innovative way for hero and heroine to meet, I thought in disgust. And it doesn't get much better. David is completely captivated by Hannah because she's "smart and funny and sassy and sexy" (frankly, I wanted to smack her if she tossed off one more flippant remark) but she's reluctant to let him kiss her because of the seven year age difference. Their love banter is too self-consciously cute to be real. Actually, some of the book's sections written from David's point of view aren't half bad, but the parts written from Hannah's are too full of wisecracks to be satisfying.

Yes, the mystery gets solved, the residents are happy again, Hannah finds a place to feel at home, and the stage is set for a sequel (South of Sanity, available March 2001). But despite the appeal of a book set in my home state, I doubt I'll be on the prowl for the next installment.

Suzann Ledbetter seems to be a funny woman. I'm sure her columns are entertaining. But she has to refine her skills at integrating the humor into the story, and developing her characters before she becomes a strong novelist as well.

--Susan Scribner

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