Tuesday, August 06, 2002

'Eleventh Hour' grips readers

By Jim Knippenberg jknippenberg@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Catherine Coulter began her new book as she begins all her books: “I had this idea. I call them "What Ifs?'

        “What if a serial killer murders a priest who just happens to have a twin brother who's an FBI agent? I liked the concept, but I had no idea what would happen, because I always let the story write itself.”

        What happened is Eleventh Hour, seventh in her series of FBI thrillers and her 52nd novel, most of them contemporary or historical romances. The romances made her famous. The thrillers made her a respected writer.

        Debuting at No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list (her Hemlock Bay is No. 2 on the paperback list), Hour is a grim tale of life imitating art, Hollywood egos run amok and one woman in a dangerous relationship.

        At the heart is a serial killer so obsessed with the TV show The Consultant that he goes out and recreates murders from each week's episode.

        The killer could be the guy who writes the show; he's weird enough. Or the guy who directs it; he's smarmy enough. Or the five-star whacko studio president. Or the guy who owns the show's concept; heaven knows he's a few bulbs short of a chandelier.

        All of which makes this prime Coulter: Anyone could be the bad guy, a complex situation made more so by the grab bag full of clues pointing in a thousand directions.

        “Well, you wouldn't want me to make it easy, would you?” Ms. Coulter said last week over dinner in Dayton, one of the last stops on a 13-city tour. “Half the fun of it is getting readers turning pages so fast they don't have time to stop and think about the solution.”

        Right. You're flipping pages plenty fast, because this is easy reading. But not easy solving.

        That's the job of Savich and Sherlock, her recurring FBI agents — now married — and Dane Carver, her new agent and the central figure in Hour. They're helped out by an array of local investigators and a homeless woman named Nick, the only witness to Father Michael Joseph Carver's murder. But, she isn't really homeless at all, just on the run from a nut case of a fiance.

        What keeps the pages turning here is the triple threat:

        • There's the whodunnit — the Script Killer, they call him — and the agents race to find him before the next episode of The Consultant.This part is classic police procedural, as in find and interpret clues, backtrack when they turn out to be bogus, find more clues and so on, inch by inch.

        • That's all tangled up with Nick's story, told chronologically in flashbacks every third chapter or so. In what's almost an interior monologue, we find out her fiance, a U.S. senator 20 years her senior, has had a string of wives and fiancees who have disappeared or died in unfortunate accidents.

        • Nick runs straight into the arms of Agent Carver, which is more classic Coulter. She loves romance and she's not shy about it: “At the center of all romances, there has to be a relationship. Doesn't hurt a thriller to have one or two, either,” she says.

        If Ms. Coulter's goal was to get a reader turning pages fast enough to get a few really good paper cuts, she succeeded. Some of the characters are so vile you can't wait 'til they get nailed, and others are so likeable you can't wait to find out if they get a happy ending.

        If there is one.


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