She Walks in Beauty

Miss Louisiana is heavy into voodoo. Miss Texas talks dirty and brainy and has nothing but loathing for ”those slime-faced judges staring at my crotch.” Miss New Jersey has a Mafia protector who’ll do anything (blackmail and kidnapping for starters) to see his bambina take the title. And the pageant judges are being brainwashed — with subliminal messages piped into their rooms — so that they’ll vote for the contestant favored by the loony owner of Atlantic City’s famously vulgar Monopoly Hotel.

No, this isn’t the Miss America pageant as you know it from all those tubular Saturday nights with Bert Parks and Mr. and Mrs. Gary Collins. This version — part exposé, part thriller, part off-the-wall farce — comes from the lively, slightly scary mind of Sarah Shankman, a rising star in the murder-comedy game. The earthy, snazzy Shankman mysteries (this is the fourth thus far) feature Samantha Adams of the Atlanta Constitution: recovered alcoholic, 40ish liberated lady, and ace crime writer specializing in ”blood, gore, bad guys shooting up the little girl behind the counter in the fried chicken joint because she ran out of dark and crispy.” The last newsperson you’d send to the Miss America pageant, right? But Sam’s boss has a thing for Miss Georgia and insists on having his best reporter cover the contest — even if Sam gags at the notion of spending Labor Day weekend watching ”bimbos twitching their butts down runways.”

Once in Atlantic City, however, Sam warms to the assignment. For one thing, she brings her handsome boyfriend, Harry, along to share the fun — and her hilarious pink-satin hotel suite. For another, she starts responding to the excitement of the competition itself. Above all, Sam gets a whiff of foul play in the air. One of the judges — lecherous fashion photographer Kurt Roberts — suddenly disappears. Nasty bits of sabotage, from booby-trapped hairbrushes to stolen costumes, nearly destroy the big show. Sam’s suspicions make her edgy — ”as if somebody had whacked her with a giant bag of PMS” — but they also get her delightfully revved up.

Shankman tells us exactly what’s going on right from the start. So don’t expect much suspense, or anything resembling a traditional mystery puzzle. Do expect plenty of shrewd behind-the-scenes beauty-pageant detail (Shankman has done her homework) and a crew of memorable characters — including a psychopathic hotel security guard à la Elmore Leonard, a mother-obsessed mafioso, and the sleazy game-show emcee who replaces an indisposed Gary Collins on the pageant broadcast. All in all, a loose, juicy send up — not exactly compelling, but a whole lot more entertaining than the televised real thing. B+

She Walks in Beauty
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