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Loves Music, Loves to Dance

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Is it possible to write a convincing, suspenseful serial-killer novel without the gory details? Without the gruesome police work, the disturbing neo- Freudian psychology, and the sickening horror? Of course it is. Long before Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, there was Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians), a powerful and scary book that was also decorously old-fashioned.

So it isn’t Mary Higgins Clark’s genteel manner, or the lack of grisly specifics, that makes Loves Music, Loves to Dance such a limp excursion into homicidal mania. It’s the pedestrian plot and the daytime-soap characters.

Clark’s heroine is Manhattan interior decorator Darcy Scott, 28, whose best friend — jewelry designer Erin Kelley —disappears and then turns up dead on the West 56th Street pier with one of her boots replaced by a silvery evening slipper. Erin, it seems, met her killer through the personals: She and Darcy had answered some ads as a favor to their pal Nona Roberts, who’s producing a TV documentary on dating through personals columns. It soon becomes clear that Erin’s death is just one of a series of ”dancing-shoe murders” — all of which echo the Connecticut killing, 15 years earlier, of a college student named Nan Sheridan.

Darcy pluckily turns sleuth, of course, and mingles with the assorted men in Erin’s life: her recent dates, her jewelry business colleagues, and the lecherous super in Erin’s apartment building. (By groaning coincidence, virtually all the suspects are connected in some way to that bygone Connecticut murder.) Meanwhile, according to ancient romantic-suspense formula, Darcy finds herself attracted to two phenomenally eligible suitors: Nan Sheridan’s twin brother, Chris, who ”still looked more like the linebacker he had been in college than a leading authority on antique furniture”; and dashing psychiatrist Michael Nash, who has an estate, a regular table at Le Cirque, and a book in progress about personal-ad dating. Meanwhile, too, the split-personality psycho-whose identity turns out to be no more surprising than his problem (”His mother had loved him so much! Then she changed”) — naturally plans to make Darcy his next dancing partner…and victim.

As a thriller, then, Clark’s eighth novel creaks and splutters-right up to the corny, damsel-in-distress finale. As a concoction for loyal Clark fans, however, it’s surefire stuff: faintly glamorous (Darcy’s parents are movie stars), vaguely sentimental, and no more frightening — or related to real-life crime — than an average episode of Murder, She Wrote. C