Gene Lyons
March 11, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Okay, so the chamber of commerce and the state tourist board don’t have to like it, but Florida’s main literary export these days seems to be the screwball homicide tale. Now, the crime novels of John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard have already made Miami sound like the Jersey meadows with palm trees. But lately, writers like Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, and even Edna Buchanan seem to find murder basically funny.

Not that Buchanan plays it strictly for laughs. In her third novel, Miami, It’s Murder, the former Miami Herald crime reporter delivers her second straightforward, cleverly plotted thriller featuring ace crime reporter Britt Montero of the Miami Daily News (any resemblance between the fictional reporter and the wisecracking, sentimental-but-tough newspaperwoman of Buchanan’s highly successful nonfiction books The Corpse Had a Familiar Face and Never Let Them See You Cry, you understand, being purely coincidental). This time out, Britt is after the Downtown Rapist, a scary predator who lurks in office-building restrooms and who seems to be developing a thing about Britt herself. Nothing funny so far.

The black-comic elements of Miami, It’s Murder reside mostly in its parallel plot. First, there’s the highly ironic death of one Dieter Steiner, a debonair socialite whom detectives believe got away with murdering two wives. Dieter is accidentally electrocuted while urinating into the bay. Next comes ”Uncle Dirty,” who almost certainly raped and murdered his 14-year-old niece. He’s found hanging by the neck wearing a red lace teddy, an unintended victim of autoerotic strangulation. But the case that really piques Britt’s curiosity is a long-unsolved sex murder in which the state’s only suspect was one Eric Fielding — now the overwhelming favorite to become governor of Florida. So while the Downtown Rapist stalks Britt, Britt stalks the politician-using every reporter’s trick she knows to bring a secret to light. A witty, engaging thriller with a couple of ingenious, nasty surprises. B+

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