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A crime reporter with taste - and an eye for detail

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EARLY in her career as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald, Edna Buchanan observed a disturbing pattern in domestic-violence cases. ``There are so many cases where you cover the murder of a woman and find she's been trying to get help,'' Ms. Buchanan says. ``The police may have been called a dozen times, but never did anything. They just patted the guy on the shoulder and said, `Well, be nice now.'''

Now, Buchanan notes, police officers are ``much more sensitive'' to domestic violence. They also have instructions to make an arrest if violence appears imminent.

Yet women themselves sometimes compound the problem, she adds. After an abused woman's husband is arrested, she might bail him out the next day, take him home, and refuse to press charges. Or a wife who has sought refuge in a shelter for battered women might sneak a call to her husband to give him the shelter's unpublished address.

``Women in love are always so helpful,'' Buchanan says dryly. ``Here they were safe, but they would go back to try to make it work, and end up getting murdered.''

Today she sees signs of progress. Shelters for abused women, treatment programs for abusive men, and greater public awareness of the problem help women realize they have alternatives to feeling economically and physically trapped.

``It's getting a whole lot better,'' Buchanan says. ``But it's still going to take a lot of work on the part of all of us - journalists, police, women's groups.''

Buchanan, a slim, intense woman wearing a rust-colored suit and sporting a gold ring with a diamond ``E,'' is bringing a new level of seriousness and taste to the once-sensationalistic genre of crime reporting - a beat journalists have traditionally regarded as ``something to get off as soon as possible.''

Last year Buchanan's total dedication to this beat won her a Pulitzer Prize. This year she has reviewed her 16 years as a crime reporter in a book, ``The Corpse Had a Familiar Face'' (Random House, New York, $17.95).

What leads to violence? What can be done to prevent it?

These simple and profound questions obviously haunt and puzzle a woman who has reported more than 5,000 violent deaths.

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