Review

    Love Her Madly
    by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–1967)
    Henry Holt & Co., $25.00
    2002
    307 pages

    Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98)

    HERE’S A BOOK THAT’S as hard to pin down as it is to put down. Love Her Madly is a page-turning, icon-busting mystery, with a savvy and sassy female in the lead role. She has the unlikely name Poppy Rice.
         Poppy is an FBI agent, not a private detective, and the story is more a “What Happened?” than a “Who Done It?”
         There are more than the usual elements, though these are well represented: the grisly murders, the sleazy suspects, extenuating circumstances, crooked cops and nasty crooks. Add to these: Texas law and order, born-again Christians, Texas politics, the Catholic Church, Texas attitude.
         It is this extra playing field that gives Mary-Ann Tirone Smith her space for witty commentary on some of the political realities of today’s America. Here’s Poppy saying, “You would agree with our former President then? That sex isn’t necessarily sex?” And here’s her boss commenting on TV news commentators: “Switch to Brokaw. Rather lost his marbles years ago, Poppy.” And here’s her secretary noting that the Houston police department prides itself on its winning record for sheer numbers of convictions and death penalties. As one Texan tells Poppy: “We’re in a paranoid and punishin’ culture, ma’am.” And it’s in that mighty state of Texas that convicted ax-murderer Rona Leigh Glueck is set to be put to death.
         Agent Poppy Rice is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the trial and conviction of the pretty little born-again Christian that Rona has become, so Poppy heads on out to Houston to investigate. The cast of characters dead set on seeing that Rona gets her due punishment include a staunch Republican governor with aspirations for national office, his various and assorted law enforcement officials, a rich doctor with an ax to grind who also happens to be the governor’s close personal friend, and, most especially, the low-life widower of the wretched victim.
         Tirone Smith, with a nicely honed stiletto in her repertoire, takes a few stabs at the landscape she describes. She has one of her characters calling “Texas society” an oxymoron. And she describes Rona as having “pre-makeover Paula Jones matted bangs, a drooping lifeless clump of chemically permed, dyed-black curls” surrounding her cherubic face.
         Not that Poppy’s a prude. She has a one-night stand with a ballplayer she meets in a bar at two in the morning, and an ongoing friendly affair with a fellow Fed at the “Department of Guys, the ATF: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.” Then there are some really quirky elements, such as a charismatic renegade Shaker who puts a postmodern orgasmic spin on religion and celibacy. And, there’s a grand finale of an execution that turns out to be not so final.
         The lengthy description of what goes on in the execution chamber, and the morbid step-by-step process of the legal killing itself, are just too good to be fictional. Sure, this is a story being told, but it’s fashioned from the fabric of cold, hard reality.
         Tirone Smith has a good ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable, no matter how corrupt or blockheaded or just plain stupid they may be. Occasional conversations may go on too long after they lose their momentum (three pages, for example, on how to get to the prison) and there are so many Texas-type characters their separate identities tend to blur.
         Yet there are times when sheer length itself becomes amusing, such as the list of what visitors can’t wear in or bring in to a Texas prison: “No hats, belts, sweaters, jackets, vests, coats, boots, hair ornaments, jewelry, handbags, briefcases, bags, cameras, computers, food, gum, candy, drinks, medications, cigarettes, cigars, newspapers, books, magazines, paper, pencils, pens, gifts, money.”
         Tirone Smith scores with an original and imaginative plot, frighteningly vivid violence, lurid sex, and — most satisfying — an ongoing uncertainty about what in the world will happen next.
         Look for more Poppy Rice action, now in the works.

    Journalist Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Two Years Beyond Siberia, a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.