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Second Sight

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, August 6, 2007

LAST BREATH

A Sherry Moore Novel

By George D. Shuman

Simon & Schuster. 273 pp. $24

George D. Shuman, who retired as a lieutenant after 20 years with the D.C. police, last year published his first novel, "18 Seconds." It was well received in this corner and was named by the International Thriller Writers as one of the best first novels of the year. Both "18 Seconds" and "Last Breath," Shuman's new novel, feature Sherry Moore, who is beautiful, blind and endowed with psychic powers. When she holds the hand of a dead person, she can see what that person saw in the final 18 seconds of his or her life. This gift has brought Moore great celebrity and, as we see in "Last Breath," great pain.

At the beginning, Moore is falling apart. She's seen too many visions of death and dying, and she is haunted, too, by the loss of her lover, a policeman who died protecting her in the previous book. She's self-medicating with alcohol and various pills and is so depressed she barely gets out of bed. But she pulls herself together because the Maryland State Police need her help in the case of three women who've been strangled and left in a deserted warehouse. A serial killer who police hoped was dead is back in business.

We readers already have met him, and he's creepy in the extreme. Kenny's mother was a disturbed woman who enjoyed hanging herself, getting the high that accompanies a loss of oxygen and then stopping the game before she lost her life. Unfortunately, she was doing this one day when Kenny was 12 and seriously miffed because she'd forgotten his birthday, so he helped her go all the way. Soon, the lad was hanging himself for kicks: "It was unrestrained ecstasy, the synchronized orgasm of body and an oxygen-deprived brain. It was a state of hallucinogenic euphoria, an antidote for life's pain."

But Kenny doesn't stop there. The novel tells us a good deal about what is variously called "breath play" and "erotic asphyxiation." As an adult, this nutcase relives his mother's death by capturing women and cutting off their air. Once, he seized two women and wrapped their heads in plastic wrap: "Fogged hollow holes marked where their mouths sucked for air; only their nostrils were exposed and he pinched them off until they passed out and then revived them again and again." In the end he hanged them. Considered as a form of either sex or murder, Kenny's obsession is gruesome. We don't doubt that it exists, but we may have qualms about learning the details.

The novel starts slowly, as Shuman shows that both his heroine and his villain are seriously troubled in their different ways. But the pace picks up as Kenny resumes his killing spree and various law enforcement agencies pursue him. Shuman makes clear, as one who's been there, that these various agencies -- the FBI, the state police and some local police -- do not exist in perfect harmony. The FBI is out to grab national publicity, and clueless local cops hinder the investigation by stomping all over a crime scene. Even the state police officers, who are more or less the heroes, fight over whether Moore's powers are real or fraudulent.

Shuman was raised on a farm in the Allegheny Mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, and he sets much of the novel there, near the Maryland line. He draws a vivid picture of coal-mining country that hasn't changed much in 200 years, except that now: "Armies of tree-hugging environmentalists loaded their Hondas and Toyotas with cross-country skis and snowshoes and came to the wilderness in search of themselves." Shuman sets several colorful scenes in a rustic bar where young miners hope to get lucky with female tourists, even as the killer is stalking his victims.

Shuman knows his police work, but he's willing to sacrifice logic for drama. We know the killer wants to get his hands on Moore -- a novel like this is inexorably drawn to that scary confrontation. Near the end, the cop protecting Moore says she has to get out of her isolated home because "I can't afford to put security around your house." (Can't afford it?) Naturally, she persuades him to let her be: "Please, Dan. I know what I'm doing." By then, the reader is screaming, "For God's sake, Dan, protect that poor blind lady from this homicidal autoerotic pervert!" But, sure enough, we're headed for a showdown in which our sightless but sexy psychic is in the clutches of the madman. It's pure Good vs. Evil and, if the resolution is not surprising, it's well handled and even touching.

Still, I have mixed feelings about Sherry Moore. In some ways, she's an interesting character, but I wonder how many more novels she and her death visions can support. One of these days, Shuman should turn his fictional gaze back to the mean streets of Washington. Chances are, he has stories to tell.

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