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Felonious Florida


By John Katzenbach


P. Putnam's Sons, $22.95


By Virginia Anderson

Doubleday, $17

Reviewed by Kiki Olson

"Florida has an odd way of spawning killers of unique proportions And those not born there seem to gravitate toward the state with alarming frequency. Drifters, crazies, contract murderers, killers willed by madness, passion or devoid of reason and emotion, all find their way to Florida "

So says John Katzenbach in his latest crime novel, Just Cause.

The protagonist of Just Cause is Matt Cowart, who, as Katzenbach once did, works the crime beat of a major Miami newspaper. Cowart is the totally modern hero _ he's burnt out, his ex-wife and kids are drifting further away from him; he's a lonely guy who needs a major jolt to kick back some of his elan vital. The jolt comes in a letter from death row. A black inmate, Robert Earl Ferguson, accused of the brutal killing-rape of a young white girl, claims he's innocent and swears he can identify the real murderer.

Cowart's initial cynicism turns into fanatical zeal as he takes on investigating the Ferguson case, which leads him to backwoods Florida towns where the tourist board would not encourage visitors to stay overnight. He champions Ferguson's cause in print much as Norman Mailer supported the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, the criminal-turned-writer who murdered a young man shortly after his release. Cowart wins a Pulitzer Prize for his effort and Ferguson is a free man. Alas, Cowart fell for the oldest con in the book and now, stuck with his awesome mistake (as well as an attractive reporter), he's forced to confront the folly of his crusade.

Katzenbach (whose father was former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach) is also the author of The Traveler and In the Heat of the Summer, and he brings all his crime-writing experience to bear when describing the hows and whys of investigative reporting, courtroom dialogue and drama. He's a superb craftsman, and the most chilling aspect of this psychological suspense novel is his ability to make the sociopaths who inhabit it as familiar as the clerk at the corner 7-Eleven.

While Katzenbach's Florida odyssey is reminiscent of the Scott Turow touch in Presumed Innocent, Virginia Anderson's foray into the swamps in Storm Front has a more Cape Fear veneer.

Joe Hope, a special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is another divorced, lonely guy whose live-in girlfriend left when she realized he had no plans to make her Mrs. Hope. Along with his colleagues, he's floundering over a gruesome case. Piles of skeletons have been found in a deserted cabin in a dried-out stream-bed outside of Tampa _ and there are no clues leading to the Sinkhole Killer.

Hope's work on the case becomes complicated by more murders _ a National Park employee and the fiance of his former wife. But was the fiance the target _ or was Hope, who was standing next to him when he was shot? His personal life gets further entangled when he falls for the vixenish, Lolita-esque "swamp-girl," Cindy.

There are assaults, kidnappings, shoot-'em-ups and car chases across Dade and Collier counties that would have tourists flocking toward Georgia. Blood and guts are carelessly splattered across the pages and, as in most Florida-based books, the plea for conservationism is not forgotten.

More action-packed than intellectually exciting, Storm Front leaves the reader somewhat concerned that Joe Hope has learned nothing in his violent experiences with mean-spirited thugs and malicious women and will go on making the same dumb mistakes he did in this book in future adventures.

Kiki Olson's mystery column appears monthly in the St. Petersburg Times.