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BOOK REVIEW / Harsh sputters and low chatter: 'Lovers and Liars' - Sally Beauman: Bantam Press, 15.99

THIS NOVEL is one of those heavy, glossy numbers with a sexy photograph on the cover that are designed to appeal to a large chunk of the reading public. Especially to women who don't read very much - except, perhaps, magazines and newspapers. Sally Beauman herself began her trade in magazines, and returns to the world of journalism in Lovers and Liars, with a hero who photographs war-zones and love-nests, and a heroine who files juicy copy at a downmarket broadsheet. At first the setting left this reader amused but puzzled. Can the world of grimy faxes, long hours and crowded offices ever bear the same weight of glamour and outsize gestures that the film industry did in Destiny or the leisured classes did in Dark Angel?

But after a while you begin to see Beauman's point in choosing such a milieu. Journalists can be very good piggies in the middle, floating from the low chatter of lunch at the Savoy to the harsh sputter of guns in Beirut. There is an endless potential for fast costume changes, a rushed pace, and the kind of language and characters that are at home nowhere but can strike a pose anywhere, all of which is essential to these baggy, bloated blockbusters.

They are strange beasts, these modern sagas destined for the hands of ordinary women. They teeter between romance and thriller; erotica and career guidance; realism, wish-fulfilment and bleak morality tale, with hardly any sense of a guiding authorial hand. In Destiny and Dark Angel Beauman was serving up more or less unadulterated nonsense, but the contemporary journalistic setting in Lovers and Liars has helped her to grow up a bit. This heroine, Gini, is a 27-year-old earning her own living and introduced baldly: 'Genevieve Hunter lived in the basement flat of a tall house overlooking one of Islington's prettiest squares . . . she was tall, slender, and dressed in a mannish way . . . a grave, clear-eyed and rather beautiful face.' Rather beautiful? Since when was the heroine of such a book rather beautiful? It's a long way from the introduction of previous Beauman heroines: 'Lady Isobel Herbert, eldest daughter of the Earl of Conay, was 18, dazzling, and imperiously aware of it', or Helene Craig, 'calmly cocooned in the perfection of her beauty'.

At the outset, the various characters and settings are meticulously tricked out with quasi-realistic detail. Gini works at a newspaper in the docklands engaged in a circulation war that leads it inexorably downmarket; it only looks like the Times, but it's called the News. And her editor is called Jenkins, but that's Nicholas Jenkins; while the columnist she loves to hate is Appleyard - Johnny Appleyard. And when we begin she is, as a serious woman, having some perfectly understandable problems squaring her own integrity with the telephone sex stories she is made to cover.

But suddenly the machine whirrs, and she is shot into the thunderously fantastic world that we were expecting. First of all she is re-introduced to her first love, a photographer called Pascal Lamartine with whom she had a wild affair in Beirut when she was only 15. And they are set to work on the 'big' story - some incomprehensible nonsense centring on the American ambassador's wife's sexual proclivities. The working out of the story involves a lot more pornographic videos, sudden murders and trips to Venice than your average assignment, and has a strikingly nasty denouement with the wife packed off to a lunatic asylum, the father of the ambassador revealed as a psychopath and the ambassador's brains splattered all over his garden.

What Sally Beauman is really famous for, of course, is sex. Destiny was not loved for its characters or its plot, but for its lushly pornographic motifs, its diamond earrings worn in unlikely places and insouciantly obscene language. The same language holds here - no peekaboo references to manhoods or softnesses. But in this book the effect of such a constant barrage of nonchalant pornography is to make even the most unpleasant sex-scenes bland. Beauman seems not to have grasped that wit and inventive language are necessary even for sex, for sex more than anything. Group sex, bought sex, violent sex, loving sex - everything is described with the same cold detachment. This seems to be the element of the blockbuster package that Beauman is now least easy with; uncharacteristically, she ends the book with an elided night, in which we must simply assume that sex has taken place.

Throughout, the prose never goes beyond a move-it-along-quickly-please, we've got a plot to get through, style. But it's neat and well-paced and wears some of its kitschiest elements with a jolly irony that is rather charming; even Beauman seems to be smiling at all the icy tones and knitted brows and 'I'm not calling anyone a liar' dialogues. And after all, what do you expect? You buy a blockbuster, you read a blockbuster. If it feels as though more than one novel, more than one worldview, have been tacked together to make the whole, at least that means that the nastiest elements are leavened by moments of life and joy.

During the tale, Gini and Pascal - it hardly needs to be said - find happiness with one another, and at the end are released into fulfilment, in an unaffected and simple manner that Beauman seems to relax into. 'It felt so good, so immensely good to be alive, to be with Pascal, to be here . . . She saw trees with their trunks lime-washed white, and their still-bare branches strung with lights. She saw two cafes facing one another on either side of his square. She saw the houses he had described to her, and the small church he'd worshipped in as a boy.' This assured, if naive, authorial voice and the growing evidence of solid virtues like generosity and principle among her main characters is unexpected and fetching. Perhaps as time goes on, Sally Beauman's work will get both nicer and better. But then she probably won't be writing blockbusters at all any more.