Envy, Sandra Brown’s latest thriller-with- a-side-order-of-hot-pants-romance, went on sale on August 28 and immediately became the number six best-selling book on Amazon.com. By week’s end, it occupied the number two slot on the New York Times‘s Hardcover Fiction list. Meanwhile, Brown’s previous novel from Warner Books, The Switch, was at number six on the Times‘s Paperback Fiction list—her forty-sixth appearance on one or another of the Times‘s best-seller lists. If Envy reaches number one, it will be her second visit to the top of the list—The Alibi did the trick for her in 1999.

Who is this Sandra Brown, anyway? Not a darling of the critics or the literati, that’s for sure. My unscientific poll of a dozen savvy media types around North America (editors, journalists, publishers) turned up just one semi-positive I.D.—”I’m pretty sure she’s an author”—proof, I suppose, that while the New York Times‘s best-seller lists might measure sales, they cannot confer the respect of pundits and critics.

Which doesn’t seem to faze Brown, who enjoys the full affections of the world’s booksellers. Raised in Fort Worth and based in Arlington, the 53-year-old novelist is a powerhouse in the book-publishing industry. By the numbers, she may well be the most successful Texas author of all time. The Sandra Brown franchise churns out a new book every fall and, according to her publisher, has sold 60 million copies of 61 titles. Warner, not averse to hyperbole, refers to its relationship with Brown (an ongoing series of three-book deals) as “one of the most successful partnerships in publishing history.”

A refugee from the field of steamy romance paperbacks, Brown made a determined effort to abandon such titular double entendres as 1989’s Long Time Coming and cross over to the mainstream suspense world with the publication of Mirror Image in 1990. Her plot thickened noticeably compared with the watery fare permissible in serial romances, but it was hardly more believable: A TV reporter is horribly disfigured in a plane crash, and the plastic surgeon mistakenly gives her the face of a senatorial candidate’s wife. Then, as Brown’s publisher gushes, “to save the life of the man she loved, [she] must live another woman’s life—and risk her own . . .” Old package, new wrapper? (I confess that it feels a bit mean-spirited, even petty, to take critical measure of Sandra Brown’s books—it’s kind of like a restaurant critic taking potshots at Denny’s or IHOP. But even pop culture deserves a little quality control to protect a trusting public.)

Brown’s readers appear to be a fiercely loyal cult. Lots of them have stayed with her since the days of torrid romances; even more are converts to her thriller-suspense stylings. New or old, they are almost exclusively women. Men are, perhaps, less receptive to Brown’s breathless offerings, like this from last year’s The Switch: “. . . he wished she would remove her sunglasses so he could see if her eyes lived up to the rest of her face. Particularly her mouth. Her mouth made him believe in sin.” To satisfy the insatiable demand for Sandra Brown product, Warner is aggressively repackaging and reprinting her bodice rippers under her own name, rather than original noms de plume such as Rachel Ryan and Erin St. Claire; a twentieth-anniversary edition of her first novel, Love’s Encore (“Zach Prescott broke Camille’s heart once. Will she allow him to do it again while she’s redecorating his Natchez plantation house?”), came out in May.

Blockbuster sales aside, how does Envy measure up to other suspense-genre fiction? Not well, I’m afraid. It opens with a book-within-a-book—the first twelve pages are the prologue to an unsolicited manuscript that shows up on the desk of New York publisher Maris Matherly-Reed. She is immediately hooked and determines to find the anonymous writer, identified only by the initials “P.M.E.” and an address: St. Anne Island, Georgia. Let’s read along with Maris from the top:

Saltines and sardines. Staples of his diet. Add a chunk of rat cheese and a Kosher dill spear and you had yourself the four basic food groups. There simply wasn’t any finer fare.

That was the unshakable opinion of Hatch Walker, who had a sun-baked, wind-scoured visage that only a mother gargoyle could love.

And a few paragraphs later:

His nicotine-stained teeth crunched into his pickle, and he savored the garlicky brine, which he chased with a bite of cheese. It just didn’t get any better.

Unfortunately, neither does the rest of this teaser for a manuscript whose supposed brilliance sends a major publisher into a minor frenzy. Consider this twofer cliché: “The marina was now swarming with onlookers who’d been drawn to the scene of the drama like flies to a pile of manure. And you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting some breed of uniformed personnel.” Or this mind-numbing repetition within a matter of paragraphs: (1) “The streets were relatively quiet. Thank the good Lord for small favors, Hatch thought”; (2) “it was quiet. Peaceful, you might say”; (3) “Give Hatch Walker solitude and quiet anytime”; (4) “it was quiet, and . . . Hatch preferred it this way.” Got it. Hatch likes it quiet.

Envy is ambitious enough in the context of Brown’s previous books. Her tale-within-a-tale is a demanding device to pull off, and she tenaciously interweaves her various plots and subplots (too many, if truth be told). But her characters are straight out of central casting: Patriarch Daniel Matherly, infinitely wise and patient even when confronting Unfaithful Husband Noah Reed, whose dalliance with Bitchy Book Critic Nadia Schuller spells despair and resentment for Heroic Wife Maris Matherly-Reed—and on and on through the Tragic Writer and the Loyal Caretaker. As if that weren’t enough, each appearance of a character triggers a digression—like a voice-over in a morality play—to remind the reader who is a cad and who is a prince.

To Brown’s credit, she has tried to add weight and darkness to her past several books by involving all manner of psychopaths and crooks. But that doesn’t save these recent efforts, including Envy, from the multitude of sins that condemns them—overwriting, overplotting, stilted dialogue, and just plain mediocrity. In The Switch she even dredges up the hoary gimmick of identical twins (spellbindingly beautiful sisters, of course) who switch identities as a romantic ploy. The resulting mess necessitates an ugly wrap-up that smacks of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine:

“That’s when I learned she had a twin,” Chief told the others. “She told me that Gordon must have mistaken her for her sister Gillian.”

“But you were Gillian,” Lawson said [to Gillian] with some confusion.

“Pretending to be Melina,” Chief reminded him.

Lawson scowled at her. “You’re sure you’re Gillian now?”

“Yes,” she said with a weak smile. “I am.”

Brown is purportedly pitching suspense and mystery, and some murder or mayhem always serves as the hook she hangs her story on. But I think her readers tolerate the gritty stuff to get the glamour and the glitz, the flawless tans and white, even teeth of the rich and powerful who sleepwalk through her novels. She is shilling a two-dimensional facsimile of the American dream to hundreds of thousands of women (and a few men). She is dishing out manly men, heroes-on-demand like The Switch‘s Colonel Christopher “Chief” Hart (the first Native American astronaut, with “Paul Newman blue” eyes), who is rugged but sensitive, and above all a patient lover. He’s no Bachelor Number Three; he’s Barbie’s Dream Date.

No matter how many psycho killers Brown introduces, her bottom line is the love interest and the heated clinch. There’s always a man, there’s always a woman, and there’s always an unquenchable fire in their loins. In other words, someone will always be doing the deed in some form or fashion, and always with rapt fervor. Maybe her fans demand it. Maybe it’s a contractual obligation. Maybe she just thinks a book is not finished until sex has been committed—even if, as in last year’s Standoff, the money shot takes place after the story has wound down, lowering the concept of gratuitous sex to new depths.

It’s no mystery: Brown is still hawking a brand of romance fiction, even if she wraps it in a darker, glossier package. The strategy? To attract new readers without alienating fans of her paperback throbfests. Sandra Brown has crossed over and put down new roots, but she is carrying a lot of tired, old baggage.