October 26, 1992 12:00 PM

by Maureen Howard

The centerpiece of this impressive, if at times overdone, novel is a scandalous murder. In the 1940s a young, married socialite of questionable background lures a soldier back to her elegant Bridgeport, Conn., home—and shoots him four times in the chest. County detective Billy Bray is called to investigate; what he finds changes not only his life but his daughter Catherine’s life forever. Years later his unwitting son, James, a somewhat unhappy, somewhat successful actor, feels compelled to make a film about the case, the biggest in his father’s career. But Catherine, dutiful daughter, is determined to stop him—even if she has to reveal the painful truth she has hidden for so long.

Howard’s writing is stunning. She shifts easily from voice to voice, never losing control and never losing empathy with her remarkably diverse characters. (They range from the middle-class Brays to a ghetto child to a former rodeo queen to an ex-nun.) Howard is less successful, though, when she plays with the very shape and definition of the novel. One section, titled “Double Entry,” contains the story on right-hand pages set against an amalgam of arcane information about Bridgeport’s history (including drawings, and anecdotes about such Bridgeporters as P.T. Barnum and Robert Mitchum) on left-hand pages. The artifice is amusing but unnecessary. You’re left wanting more of Howard’s compelling narrative and less of her self-conscious literary experiment. (Norton, $22.95)

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