Love and Death in the Sunshine State By Cutter Wood.
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 225 pages, $26.95.)

It's sometimes hard to tell where reality ends and imagination begins in this debut work. The book's promotional material likens it to Truman Capote's 1966 classic "In Cold Blood," calling it "a story that exists outside documentary evidence."

Meaning: The bones of the tale are true, but author Cutter Wood makes liberal use of his imagination to flesh out scenes that couldn't possibly have happened exactly as he describes them.

Journalistic tut-tutting aside, Wood's mixture of fact and art yields a tale both gritty and introspective, with a real murder providing an entree to an examination of the nature of love. Interviewing witnesses, poring through police and court files, Wood reveals the truth about the brutal death of a Florida motel keeper.

But he also does much more, reaching back into his own memories to uncover precise, artfully rendered recollections of his own life and loves, juxtaposing them with the impending tragedy on Anna Maria Island.

Wood's prose is detailed yet deft; he stops just short of laying on the writerly stuff too thick. Whenever he seems about to launch completely into the ether, he pulls back with a quick, pointed observation summing up the myriad thoughts, sensations and emotions that we've all experienced at crucial moments in our lives.

This is a fine true-crime mystery and a touching journey into the human heart.

Cutter Wood will be at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., at 7 p.m. April 25.


Madness Is Better Than Defeat
By Ned Beauman. (Knopf, 416 pages, $27.95.)

It's a good thing the ornate "Madness Is Better Than Defeat" is studded with sly winks to the reader, such as, "I may as well carry on from where I left off (even if that is a nicety obsolete in these pages)," because a road map helps us navigate its daunting journey.

The comic novel begins in Hollywood. Based on his nut-ball ­theory of rising and rising action, a young director earns the right to direct an epic on location at a South American temple. "Madness" then proceeds to hew to the director's theory, piling on narrative thread after narrative thread and toggling between two time frames.

Two decades later, the film crew still hasn't returned from Honduras (nobody misses any of them?) and they're competing with a financier who wants to steal the temple. Author Ned Beauman, who is great at capturing the snappy patter of midcentury Hollywood and newspaper types, also throws in CIA machinations in "banana republics," several romances and numerous allusions to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (some of the circumstances of the film resemble Francis Ford Coppola's "Darkness" adaptation, "Apocalypse Now").

The novel is clever as all get-out, but, as it begins to resemble an attempt to smush four Kurt Vonnegut novels into one, it's also exhausting.