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By Aileen Schumacher

Write Way, 359 pp., $23.95
August 1998

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg

Leonora Hinson was a bitter, manipulative, and wealthy woman who made the lives of those around her more difficult, even after her death.

If this sounds like a description of a typical victim in a traditional mystery, there are enough new elements in Aileen Schumacher's FRAMEWORK FOR DEATH to keep her second novel contemporary and entertaining.

Hinson's is one of two bodies discovered in a hidden room in her mansion just north of downtown El Paso. No one knows why the secret room, whose ceiling collapsed on the bodies, was built, or who the other woman was. To complicate matters, a baby girl is found, unharmed, in an upstairs bedroom.

Detective David Alvarez is assigned to investigate, although what crime was committed, if any, isn't clear. Faulty construction work on the secret room prompts Alvarez to call Tory Travers, the structural engineer with whom he had worked and flirted in the earlier book ENGINEERED FOR MURDER. (Those eager to question the use of an engineer who lives fifty miles away, across the border in New Mexico, have missed the point of this series.) Tory, although frosty towards Alvarez for not calling her for six months, agrees to inspect the site and is quickly involved in something that goes far beyond a possible homicide.

The novel follows both Alvarez and Tory as they work, together and separately, to solve the mystery surrounding Leonora Hinson's death. The reader is also given occasional glimpses of Derek Dowling, a DEA agent whose obsession with bringing down a drug kingpin involves him in the same case. The overall effect is of the investigation moving forward on several fronts, which come together in an explosive denoument that forces Alvarez to make a sudden judgement on how justice can best be served.

Also important to the story, though not dominant, is the relationship between Tory and Alvarez. As two capable professionals in different fields, they complement each other without an "Anything you can do, I can do better" conflict. Alvarez, though, is more interested than Tory allows herself to be, despite the able interference of her friends, and their conversations tend to be both witty and spotted with the natural mis-steps of a young relationship.

FRAMEWORK FOR DEATH is a complex, well-paced story, featuring two convincingly distinctive sleuths. As you might expect from an engineer, it strikes a good balance between the traditional demands of a challenging plot and the contemporary call for more engaging and involving characters.

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