By Joyce Burditt

Ballantine, July 1998, $5.99

Reviewed by Joe Obermaier (7/98)

Dutch O'Brien, PI, makes her debut in Buck Naked, a first mystery novel by Joyce Burditt. After an abrupt, unexplained end to a torrid love affair leaves Dutch an emotional wreck, she picks up the pieces by taking an easy job as the crime consultant for a television mystery series. Buck Stevens, the down-home, good ol' country boy star of the show, has just been dumped by his co-star, Amy, and turns his attention, without success, to Ms. O'Brien. That night, Dutch receives a beautifully wrapped, rose-scented package, and inside is Amy's severed head. With that fast, explosive start, we're off and running on an absurd, but engaging search for the killer.

Dutch O'Brien is really on edge. Burditt's new heroine is stubborn, independent, vulnerable and, occasionally, just plain nuts. She's not exactly hard-boiled; more soft boiled and lightly fried. And it's not just her -- everyone in this story seems to be hanging on by a thread, and a thin one at that.

The characters lean a little toward the cardboard cliché. Aside from our hero, we have the mother who can't help butting in. There is Buck Stevens, the popular good-natured TV star, who's really a sleazy pain-in-the-butt off screen. There are also a gruff, veteran cop (with a heart of gold), a mysterious ex-lover with a dark secret, and the neurotic writer who chain smokes and can't sit still. There is even a Japanese businessman whose employs Ninja as gardeners

. The rest of the story is filled with dysfunctional relationships, divorces, plastic surgery, New Age phenomena, and an earthquake that leads to life-altering decisions. At times this book ran the risk of becoming too silly, too off-the-wall, just too "Los Angeles" for my East Coast sensibility.

Buck Naked reads like the script to the same type of television mystery shows it ridicules. Which is not surprising, since Ms. Burditt has been a writer and producer for the Matlock, Father Dowling and Diagnosis Murder series. As I read, I couldn't help but picture Andy Griffith whenever Buck came on the scene. I found myself wondering how much was based on the author's experiences with the actor, and praying the answer was very little.

At one point in the story, the writer of the show states that: "Our audience doesn't want to be surprised. They're old. They want to be mildly entertained and lulled to sleep." Is this what TV people really believe? After seeing a few awful TV mystery series, I am sure they do believe it (and fear they may be right). Where's Columbo when you need him?

My earlier objections aside, Buck Naked is written with great wit and undeniable charm. And there are enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing to a rewarding finale.

I was torn between admiring this as a clever, cutting spoof of the state of mysteries on American television, or a funny, but unpolished and somewhat clumsy first mystery. I'll lean toward sharp satire, and give Ms. Burditt credit for an entertaining book; and warn her that if she keeps coming so close to the mark, she runs the risk of crossing over and filling her series with the type of hackneyed mystery characters her heroine mocks.

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