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BUCHANAN'S SEVENTH THRILLER LACKS A SENSE OF REALITY

GARDEN OF EVIL

By Edna Buchanan
Avon/Twilight
319 pages, $27.95

Poor Edna Buchanan.

When she was covering the murder beat for the Miami Herald during the 1980s' cocaine wars, Buchanan wrote about homicide and lesser assorted mayhem in gripping sentences anointed with telling detail.

She invested what might otherwise be flat police reports with human drama, breathed life into the tragic stories and won a Pulitzer Prize for her efforts. She also penned a compelling best-selling non-fiction memoir of a Miami police reporter's life, "The Corpse Had a Familiar Face."

Then she quit newspapering to write novels. Her main character was a police reporter for a big newspaper in Miami, a woman named Britt Montero whose physical description tended to mirror Buchanan's, only sexier.

Now that's hardly an unusual technique for novelists, and ex-reporters in particular. Write what you know, the Fiction 101 instructors urge. So Buchanan has led her fiery journalist heroine, Britt Montero, through thinly disguised episodes from Miami crime history for six novels now. People somewhere must buy them, because they keep on coming.

But when you're a writer whose grist comes from a job you no longer hold, maintaining that sense of reality, chock full of telling insider details, has to be difficult. Every compelling moment you can cadge from memory has already been exhumed.

That's where Edna Buchanan seems to find herself with her seventh installment in the Britt Montero series, "Garden of Evil."

It involves a female serial killer working her way down the Florida panhandle to Miami, leaving a trail of bullet-riddled male corpses behind her like so many empty wrappers from Stuckey's pecan rolls. For anyone with a working history of Florida crime, Buchanan's crib sheets stick out like the bolts on Boris Karloff's neck. Shades of Eileen Wuornos, the only gun-wielding female serial killer in recent history, crossed with Andrew Cunanan, the homicidal hustler.

From the beginning, Montero's keen reporter's eye zooms in on the suggestion that the killer may have a deep-set grudge against men. Maybe it's the way the femme fatale smears lipstick on the bullets, then shoots the men in their reproductive organs.

From that point onward, "Garden of Evil" grinds on like your everyday B-minus crime novel, fulfilling the standard plot arc already drawn out in uncounted specimens of the species. It's the kind of book that makes readers keep turning pages, eager to find some real surprise or even satisfaction, until their confidence dissolves to groans.

So guess what, the female serial killer makes her way to Miami and happens to kill the city's most controversial politician, a crooked city councilman. Then Montero's police sources let her into the scene of the crime before the ambulance is there, much less the homicide detectives. That way, she can have a good look around and write it up for the morning's paper.

Which leads the serial killer to call Montero so they can chat about current events and the finer points of journalistic ethics.

Now, plenty of novels rely on leaps of faith, especially the weaker strains of the crime thriller genre. What is unforgiveable, in Buchanan's case, is relying on a grossly unrealistic depiction of a police reporter's job to drive her story. As Buchanan knows better than practically anyone, a police reporter does not have to lie about her job to make for an interesting tale.

Yet, for the book's biggest dramatic moment, such as it is, reporter Montero arranges a personal interview with the killer, with full police cooperation. Right.

What happens next has all the surprise value of the 867,965th midnight showing of "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Reporter kidnapped by killer, who effortlessly sheds police pursuit. Killer explains abused childhood and resultant appetite for male genital mutilation, in florid white-trash dialect. Reporter gets to witness several shocking, shocking! acts of violence.

Does the reporter survive to write it all up for the newspaper? With this book, you don't have to fret over giving away the ending.

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