BOOKS: PIT OF DESPAIR

KATHRYN HARRISON MAROONS US IN THE SPANISH INQUISITION

A bad historical novel is buffoonery -- Tony Curtis capering in Taras Bulba -- but a good one makes the hair rise on the back of the neck. Poison [Random House; 317 pages; $23], by Kathryn Harrison, is very good and a complete surprise. Harrison's last novel, Exposure, was six months ahead of contemporary; it followed a tough, shrewd Manhattan beauty as she came unstrung from the effects of drugs and childhood abuse. The new novel maroons the reader, without cedit card or taxi money, in a terrifying place and time: Spain at the end of the 17th century, in the...

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