cover image The Witches' Hammer

The Witches' Hammer

Jane Stanton Hitchcock. Dutton Books, $21.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-525-93641-1

Hitchcock, who enjoyed quite a succes d'estime with her first novel, Trick of the Eye, has concocted an odder but perhaps more crowd-pleasing brew her second time out. Beatrice O'Connell, her heroine, is a dutiful Catholic girl whose life is violently changed when her beloved father, a doctor and noted rare-book collector, is found murdered soon after receiving a grimoire (an old book of black magic) from a grateful patient. It soon becomes clear to Bea and to her ex-husband Stephen that book and murder both are part of some wider, nefarious plot; matters are further heated when normally timid Bea begins to discover the sexual wolf within her. The plot eventually expands to embrace a rebirth of the ancient Inquisition; a deadly struggle between freethinking womanhood and a Christianity somewhat to the right of Torquemada; and Bea's need to choose from among not two but three kinds of male admirer. Bea's sensuous mood swings are not always convincing, the climactic pages have her behaving more like a female James Bond than the thoughtful woman introduced earlier and the villain is decidedly over the edge. Still, the novel is never dull, even if it is hard to take it as seriously as Hitchcock, with her bursts of historical scholarship, seems to intend us to. (Oct.)