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Heart of the World, Linda Barnes, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

Heart of the World by Linda Barnes

In the constellation of female P.I, authors - at least in terms of talent and achievement - Linda Barnes ranks right up there with Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller - she just isn't as well known as they are, but she has just as much to say, and she says it just as memorably. This is taxi driver - P.I. Carlotta Carlyle's tenth outing, in which Barnes gets Carlotta out of her native Boston, and very effectively hooks the story emotionally to Carlotta by having the missing teen Carlotta's trying to find be Carlotta's "little sister", Paolina. Paolina isn't really Carlotta's little sister, merely a sister (more like a niece or daughter) by virtual adoption - Paolina has a room at Carlotta's and Carlotta has known her since she was a small girl, trying to find the perfect ice cream cone. In this book, Paolina is fifteen years old, which, as anyone with a teenager can tell you, is a whole other ball of wax. Paolina lives with her mother but daydreams about her father, a notorious Columbian drug lord, long thought to be dead. Paolina, as the reader is quick to discover, knows otherwise, as she has received a gift from him recently. All her teenage longing for a beautiful, princess like relationship with a glamourous and distant father culminates in her being grabbed off the street by two people claiming to want to take her to him. As Barnes skillfully alternates narratives between Carlotta and Paolina, the reader knows that Paolina is quickly becoming both scared and bored of captivity, and that Carlotta is just plain scared. Carlotta is luckily free to act on her fear, which takes her to Columbia, the real scene of the action.

I wasn't so familiar with the area Barnes was vividly describing in the novel and consulted my son's globe to find Columbia on the northernmost tip of South America and bordering, to my surprise, not the Pacific but the Caribbean Sea. It made Barnes' tale seem all the more romantic and highly charged, as she skillfully draws in the local mythology and ancient culture and updates it to present day politics. The slow "reveal" of Paolina's actual father is very well done, as Barnes peels away the layers of his personality and at the same time ratchets up the suspense factor of her story, which of course ends with the freeing of Paolina, but has so much more to it than that. Carlotta is a larger than life character with big feet who memorably has to call a friend back home in Boston when forced to attend a fancy party in Miami (in the service of finding Paolina) and figure out how to find something appropriate to wear from her unpromising duffel bag. What she's able to do with a simple silk scarf will stay with you for awhile, as will this story. (Robin)

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