- The Washington Times - Friday, July 30, 2010

By Adam Ross
Knopf, $25.95
352 pages

By Elizabeth Lowell
Morrow, $24.99
400 pages

It may tell you most of what you want to know about “Mr. Peanut” when you read the opening sentences: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.”

There may come a time before the book ends on page 335 that you wish he had done something and spent less time concocting graphic fantasies about unpleasant people and activities that cover a range of repetitive violence. Worst of all, they seem to go nowhere, like the unpublished novel he works on. David’s wife, Alice, is obese because she eats constantly, so she begins dieting constantly except not consistently. David loves her fat, but wants to kill her thin. Or is it the other way around?

Then there is Detective Ward Hasteroll whose wife, Hannah, refuses to get out of bed. For months. So he cooks her meals and leaves them for her and while he is at work. She eats them and stares at television. She won’t tell him why.

All she ever seems to say is that he “doesn’t get it.” He isn’t alone in that, and when he begins to fantasize about killing her, he most likely has the sympathy of his readers. His colleague, Detective Sam Sheppard, who is investigating the apparent death of Alice from gobbling peanuts to which she is allergic, offers one of the few succinct observations when he reflects, “Murder is an interruption of habit, or its culmination.”

What is most confusing is that more than 100 pages of a fictional book are devoted to a comparison with the notorious case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was accused of bludgeoning his wife to death in Ohio in 1954. Why the detective shares his name is not even hinted at, let alone explained.

Alfred Hitchcock and his famous movie “Rear Window” are also hauled into a plot heavily overwritten and bogged down in a series of imaginary events. Although his style tends to be turgid, it isn’t that Adam Ross can’t write. The trouble is that he can’t stop writing. If he had held to what apparently was the premise of the book - the frustrations and lack of freedom imposed on certain couples living within the framework of marriage - he would have portrayed a bleakly fascinating account of the life of David and Alice.

He might even have offered a credible explanation for the bizarre behavior of Hannah Hasteroll, instead of leaving the reader secretly longing for her desperate husband to end it all, including her. That she winds up pregnant is unlikely in the circumstances. The character Mr. Peanut is a symbol, but of what is not made clear.

The book winds up with two pseudo-summaries, “Here’s how David’s book ended” and “Here’s how it actually ended.”

The awful truth is that you may not care.

If you love sailing and like international espionage thrillers, Elizabeth Lowell’s “Death Echo” is the book for you. If you don’t know anything about sailing, it may tell you more than you want to know or can understand, but you can be consoled by the fact that this is all useful knowledge that may come in handy if you ever need to judge radar echoes, lay a course or navigate narrow passages.

And there is always the comfort of a character like Mackenzie Durand, the only survivor of his Special Ops team and the kind of man who reminds you of Sean Connery or - if you are old enough - Errol Flynn.

In this adventure, Mac is teamed with Emma Cross, a former CIA agent looking for less-dangerous work investigating yacht thefts and probably a less-dangerous man. Ms. Lowell writes at a furious pace as her plot bounds into the pursuit of a yacht called Blackbird and its similarity to a yacht with a potentially lethal cargo that could threaten an American city. Dominating from the shadows is a character called Alara, a silver-haired “legend within the nameless, anonymously funded government agencies whose initials changed frequently.”

Now she is hiring Emma, who has “a smile as thin as a knife” and “dresses to emphasize her assets and lower a male IQ. She wasn’t movie star material, but she was plenty female.” Moreover, Mac has “clear, dark eyes and the warmest smile in the casino.” Ms. Lowell’s writing leaves something to be desired, but she is describing a tough-talking pair who appear reconciled to a lethal line of work and, in between fighting off an assortment of killers, they fall into bed.

Quality of writing doesn’t matter in this case, because the plot is propelled by bloody and life-threatening melodrama. As in Emma taking the wheel of Blackbird and being unable to get the bow headed in the right direction at the right time. “The ride became a brain bashing, stomach wringing, arm yanking roll, lurch, climb, lurch, roll, fall, lurch. And all she could think of was how did Mac do it with one hand?”

It’s fun even if you have no interest in sailing.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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