William Hoffman, Author . HarperCollins $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-019798-8

Charley LeBlanc, the black sheep of a prominent family first introduced in Hoffman's Tidewater Blood, returns from Montana to his native Shawnee County in West Virginia for what he thinks will be a short visit. He is accompanied by his tough, sexy girlfriend, Blackie, whose hillbilly argot belies her extensive reading. When he calls on his old friend, the aging Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, he finds her isolated home crawling with police. She has been found dead under mysterious circumstances. A strange, wild-eyed woman named Esmeralda, about whose life Charley knows much more than he admits to the authorities, was spotted fleeing the scene. The police, who have captured Esmeralda and are holding her at a state mental facility with murder charges pending, are tight-lipped and unhelpful in the face of Charley's inquiries. Does Esmeralda have anything to do with a very rich family negotiating to buy Aunt Jessie's land in order to develop a resort? Charley has his hands full as he and Blackie try to protect the unfortunate Esmeralda while unraveling the murder mystery. Hoffman's strengths lie not so much in the mystery plot, which at times feels forced, but in creating a strong sense of place and well-defined characters. As usual, the veteran author of 12 novels and four short story collections writes dialogue crackling with understated humor, and his elegant, laconic style brings the panoply of Shawnee County personalities to life. (Dec. 6)

Reviewed on: 10/28/2002
Release date: 12/01/2002
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!