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Outside Valentine by Liza Ward (Henry Holt, 301 pages, $23). For one terrible month in 1958, teenagers Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate terrorized the Midwest. By the end of that January, a mere few weeks after they began, the pair had killed 11 people in five states. Starkweather was 19; he would be sentenced to death; Fugate was 14; she received a life sentence.

The true story of these two teen lovers -- uneducated and poor from Nebraska, America's Heartland -- has sparked numerous books, several movies (such as 1973's "Badlands") and hundreds of theories.

In her superb, sensitive and chilling debut novel, author Liza Ward takes a new approach to this true crime story. In fiction, Ward examines the effect these senseless murders have on survivors: the families of families of families forever changed by violence. Without trivializing or glamorizing the crimes, Ward also explores teenage angst, debilitating loneliness and numbing grief. In "Outside Valentine," love can be the source of redemption or destruction.

It revolves around a crime, but "Outside Valentine" is only on the periphery of the mystery genre although it has plenty of suspense.

Rather than focus on Starkweather -- clearly the least interesting person in this story -- Ward alternates among three narrators set in three different times to drive the story. In 1957, Fugate recalls her life with Charlie; in 1962, teenager Susan "Puggy" Hurst becomes fascinated with the crime; in 1991, art collector Lowell Bowman retreats further from life, wracked by the memory of his parents who were murdered by Starkweather.

Ward pulls each of these diverse tales into a cohesive story that finds the pathos and humanity in each character. That's true even of Fugate, for whom we have little sympathy but who we can't decide just how willing or complacent she is in this crime spree. The courts in 1959 had the same problem with the real Fugate.

The author has us so wrapped up in the characters and their innermost secrets that when violence comes it is even more shocking than it would be normally.

Ward didn't randomly choose the Starkweather-Fugate crimes to wrap her novel around. Her father's parents were two of the killers' victims, prominent residents of Lincoln who were murdered while their son was at boarding school.

-- Knight Ridder Newspapers

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