Mystery writers are often so prolific one...

Mystery writers are often so prolific one name isn't enough. Erle Stanley Gardner was also A. A. Fair; John Dickson Carr was also Carter Dickson. Barbara Nickolae is a Southern California writer who has previously been Nickolae Gerstner and Barbara Pronin, which internal evidence suggests is her real name. Under any byline, her new Finders Keepers is an unusually expert and clever work. Its plotting, while highly improbable in real-world terms, is ingenious, eminently readable and suspenseful.

The setting is the Monterey Peninsula. Shannon Buchanan, a young single mother, homeless except for her battered car, is arrested and charged with kidnaping. The cops say the golden 3-year-old she knows is her daughter is in fact a child she kidnaped outside a San Diego store a year before.

The mother's story is shaky. She's made an itinerant living as a waitress and sidewalk portrait artist, earning just enough to support herself and young Mandy.

Detective Phil Tewkes is moved by Buchanan's anguish. Then again, the San Diego parents are sure Mandy is their lost Suzanne. And there seems to be a death certificate for the child Buchanan gave birth to. The ambitious district attorney and his smooth political aide see the conspicuous case as a nice boost toward the governorship.

The book has begun with the murder of a woman, and now a body turns up in Monterey Bay. It is linked to the case; the author is drawing in the strands of her intricate plot. Buchanan is clearly victim not perpetrator, which makes the circumstances of her arrest the more mysterious.

Nickolae's unfolding of the complicated back-story is very skillfully handled, and the climax--with its nicely concealed switch--is grand theater. Whatever the artifices of plot, the emotions of mothers and child and entirely credible. An admirable debut.

"John Sandford" is said to be the pseudonym of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, whose habitat, at a wild guess, is the Minnesota-St. Paul area, where Rules of Prey is set.

The ingredients are familiar enough: a cat-and-mouse game between a crazily smart serial killer and the detective who is trying to nail him. The detective is a womanizing bachelor who drives a Porsche, being rich from inventing computer games. He's also in constant trouble for killing people (five notches so far) in line of duty. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood rolled into one, you'd have to say.

The killer leaves provocative notes on the bodies ("Never carry a weapon after it has been used," for example). He's a mild-mannered lawyer, the source of whose mania is never really clear except that he seems to be a 97-pound weakling who never got in shape.

There is a love interest. Several, actually, including an intended victim who got away from the killer, and a television reporter who never heard of off-the-record. (On the other hand the detective hands out false information without a tremor of guilt.)

Sandford orchestrates the two men's parry-and-thrust with rising tension. The killer escapes one trap in a vivid tragical-comical burst of action. The last pursuit, colored by a heavy overlay of cynicism, is a rousing cap to a sleek production that is a Book-of-the-Month main choice, and seems hand-tailored for Hollywood.

Whatever her regrets about the singing career that was not to be, Margaret Truman has become a first-rate mystery writer. Murder at the Kennedy Center is her eighth. Like the others, including the excellent "Murder at the CIA" in 1987, the new one draws on an I-was-there expertise that makes the Washington political scene clang with credibility.

It's presidential nomination time in an unstated near-future year. One of the leading Democratic hopefuls, Ken Ewald, is enjoying a gala televised fund-raiser at the Kennedy Center. Afterward, a sexy campaign staffer is found shot to death in the shrubbery outside.

McKensie Smith, a campaign adviser retired from law practice to teach at Georgetown, is dragooned into defending the candidate's son, who is the chief suspect. (It was Ewald's gun, and the son had been sleeping with the victim.) But nothing, thankfully, is simple. Political espionage, betrayal, blackmail, a corn-pone Southern rival, a television evangelist, an opera singer and agents of a Panamanian strongman named Morales are all on view. The proceedings are well-paced, colorful and entertaining.

Truman, who took some sharp jabs at the CIA last time, is in "Murder at the Kennedy Center" having a trenchant say about the difference between the practical politics of compromise and a corrupting cynicism whose only goal is power. The Truman book is a Literary Guild main selection.

The clubs are manifestly discovering that crime pays. The profitability may be explained partly by the huge success of television's "Murder, She Wrote" and the enchanting Angela Lansbury as mystery-writer Jessica Fletcher.

Art has now imitated art. Gin and Daggers, as by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain, is the first of what promises or threatens to be a series of new mysteries (apparently not novelizations of show scripts) starring Fletcher as first-person narrator.

The setting of "Gin and Daggers" is London and the English country house. Jessica, abroad to address a mystery writer's conference, spends a weekend with a grande dame, an Agatha Christie-like figure who is found dead, and not by her own hand either. Her last book hadn't sounded like her at all.

Suspects include a sullen protege and the author's niece, among others. At its least successful, the book struggles to pay obeisance to the show by having Fletcher's pals, including the sheriff, from Cabot Cove, fly in unannounced to help her. The book is a cut above most novelizations but well shy of Ruth Rendell terrain: a tightly focused fan work.

Ian Fleming wrote as a hedonist who prospered by dramatizing a life's worth of fantasies--acquisitions, indulgences, guilt-free sex and violence. John Gardner writes in Win, Lose or Die as a military affairs reporter who describes the operations of a Harrier VTOL aircraft as lovingly as Fleming described Pussy Galore. Gardner is long on facts, short on feelings.

This is the eighth of the counterfeit James Bonds by Gardner, who is no kin stylistically or otherwise to the late American writer of the same name. Bond is back on Navy duty aboard a ship where Bush, Gorbachev and Thatcher are to hold arms-reduction talks. M, and possibly Q and R, know that there is to be a terrorist attack on the ship with the aim of holding the three world leaders for several zillion dollars in ransom. The terrorizing group, BAST, is a private enterprise of generally Middle Eastern persuasion but no known theological ties. Its leader, who intends to dispose of practically everyone, is as colorless a supervillain as ever Bond has faced. Call him Drabfinger.

Bond couples predictably if distractedly with three ladies, two of them are wiped out almost instantly. He does a commendable dogfight with one of the terrorist's minions in a matching Harrier. But it is all so unamusing and juicelessly programmatic. The persistence of the series, despite these pallid copyings, is the ultimate tribute to the richness of Fleming's original invention.

FINDERS KEEPERS by Barbara Nickolae (McGraw-Hill: $16.95; 200 pp.)

RULES OF PREY by John Sandford (G.W. Putnam's Sons: $18.95; 317 pp.)

MURDER AT THE KENNEDY CENTER by Margaret Truman (Random House: $17.95; 308 pp.)

GIN AND DAGGERS by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain (McGraw-Hill: $17.95; 265 pp.)

WIN, LOSE OR DIE by John Gardner (G.W. Putnam's Sons: $13.95; 319 pp.)

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