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Naked Brunch

By Sparkle Hayter

McClelland & Stewart,

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288 pages, $32.99

Among mystery fans and fellow writers, the aptly and genuinely named Sparkle Hayter is highly regarded as the hottie queen of sass. To give the girl her due, her spunky track-record is unimpeachable. Born somewhere truly tiny in British Columbia, she's seen the world. As a reporter, she covered the Afghan war -- the first one. She's braved the rigours of the news business working for CNN in Atlanta, WABC in New York and Global in Toronto.

Given her courage, sooner or later her writing was bound to step over the line. Even over lines not crossed by the endearingly wise-assed Robin Hudson, the heroine of prolific Hayter's wildly popular mystery series.

Naked Brunch is not part of that series, not a whodunnit. In fact, it's not a mystery at all, though it certainly is mysterious. The book is a "werewolf in New York (maybe)" story.

The city in which these denizens of the monthly moon stalk their prey is never named, but the Chelsea Hotel is. In its lowest reaches, the reader finds the most unusual treatment centre imaginable. Here, Dr. Marco Potenza, himself a recovering werewolf, struggles to carry on the age-old mission of his family: to enable werewolves to reintegrate successfully into society.

Sparkle Hayter isn't being funny here. This novel is pretty serious. The author's understanding of the mechanics and the psychology of treatment programs is impressive. This world is precisely and professionally rendered and so are the characters who people it.

Always on the edge of burnout, impatient with the devoted wife on whom he so depends, guilt-ridden over the questionable death of a favourite patient, embroiled in politics, weighted by the expectations of others, Potenza is a perfect example of the hurting healer so common in the saving professions.

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As for his "clients," these werewolves are stunning. Hayter has let her imagination venture wherever it would and has brought back the news with astonishing immediacy. Watch as men and women -- well, one woman, anyway -- transform from ordinary people into extraordinary beasts. Stalk with them through the sewers and other damned passages beneath the streets of New York. Taste the raw flesh of their victims in your own mouth. Vomit up an eyeball.

There is a writer of great skill and sensitivity at work here, though Naked is not without problems. There's too much in the book, too many characters and subplots and motives and issues and viewpoints. The reader occasionally loses the thread and -- worse -- begins to plod.

Which is not to say the subplots are without humour, charm and substance. Hayter is obviously an insider when it comes to the world of the news, and she takes full advantage in her creation of washed-up anchorman Sam Deverell. He starts off as a buffoon and ends up a hero, and we're with the guy all the way.

Hayter is also skilled at the "nice touch," the little detail that finesses a popular piece into something classier. Like the way the sections of the novel are given moon names: The Strawberry Moon, The Buck Moon, The Harvest Moon. It takes a lot of general knowledge and careful research to come up with details like that, and a light, confident touch to make them work.

At the heart of Naked Brunch is a moral question of some weight. Intelligent writers of mystery novels soon become aware that they are dealing with issues usually dealt with in the highest courts of law. Hayter's werewolves find their victims by zeroing in on the stench of human moral rot. When they find it, they strike with unmitigated violence. They are sneaky killers who kill other sneaky killers. Exclusively. They mete out justice. So do they themselves deserve to live or die? Can they be rehabilitated? Should they? Are they ill or are they bad?

This book is brave enough to ask questions like that and smart enough not to try to answer them. It isn't perfect but it's bold, new and readable. I guess you could say it's hot. Rosemary Aubert is currently on leave from her job as judge's deputy in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to finish the fourth Ellis Portal mystery novel.

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