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BOOK REVIEW / Getting to the art of the matter: 'House of Moons' - Susan Moody: Hodder & Stoughton, 15.99 pounds

HOUSE of Moons has all the ingredients of a pot-boiling bestseller. In an assured well-plotted page- turner there is graphic sex, suspense, passion, mystery and violence - on international locations and in posh clothes, of course. But Susan Moody has also brought to her lush drama a quality of descriptive writing and an attention to characterisation which raises the novel to another level.

Moody - best known for her series of crime novels featuring the 6ft black female investigator, Penny Wanamake - broke out of the cramped confines of the crime genre with her 1991 novel, Hush-A-Bye. House of Moons takes her confidently into the mainstream.

The Casa de las Lunas is the home of the artist Fernando Vincente and his younger sister Mercedes. Vincente's imprisonment and murder during the Spanish Civil War casts a long shadow over Mercedes' life. Obsessed with vengeance and with establishing her brother's reputation as a major Spanish painter, she lets no one stand in her way, whether it is her stepgranddaughter, Tess Lovel, or her former lover and Tess's guardian, Jonas Fedor.

The narrative shifts fluidly between past and present, between Mercedes and Tess. Mercedes makes her way to a position of power in the American art world in the Forties and Fifties (Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock have selfconscious walk-on parts). Tess tracks down Vincente paintings in the present and discovers dreadful truths about her family's hidden past.

Moody's characterisations are deft, especially her portrayal of the damaged, vengeful but essentially tragic Mercedes. Indeed, Mercedes is such a vivid character that Tess, the ostensible heroine, seems anaemic by comparison.

Moody is particularly good at creating tension and unease, despite some unconvincing scenes of sexual violence. Her descriptive writing has an almost tactile quality, especially passages about Spain, with its slashes of colour in sun-bleached landscapes.

Occasionally the novel falters and falls back on the formulaic. The dashing Dominic, feared and desired by Tess, is a cliched romantic hero. Some of Mercedes' rise to power in New York is standard Sheldonese, including the scenes where, to further her career, she gives herself to a painfully wellendowed art dealer. And the final confrontation seems rushed and a little hackneyed ('You'll never get away with this,' one character says to the man with the gun). The hints of the supernatural among all the unnatural happenings might have been profitably developed.

Even so, House of Moons is a substantial achievement. Under another name, Susan Moody has written historical novels and, recently, Love Over Gold, the novelisation of the advertisement. She likes to mix such frolics and her crime novels with what she calls her 'serious books'. On the evidence of this novel, her 'serious books' deserve to take up all her time.