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When is a mystery not exactly a...

When is a mystery not exactly a mystery? The question arises with K. C. Constantine’s fine, slim new novel, Sunshine Enemies (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 167 pp.).

There is a crime, certainly. A man has been found stabbed to death outside the porn shop at the edge of town, the same shop the new Lutheran minister has been bugging Police Chief Mario Balzic to shut down. But the murder, and the perspiring minister, are only the backdrop to Balzic’s struggle with his grief over the death (from old age and a failing heart) of his mother.

This is the ninth of the Balzic stories by the pseudonymous Constantine, whose real identity remains a well-guarded secret. He has been described as a newspaper writer in a small Pennsylvania city much like the one he describes as Rocksburg.

The pleasure of the series is that Constantine knows his turf and its people as well as Tony Hillerman knows the Navajo-Hopi Southwest or Raymond Chandler knew Southern California. Balzic, half-Italian, half-Slavic, blue collar turning white, always has felt like a very autobiographical character: direct, profane, street smart, hard-drinking, emotional, and never more so than when he falls apart after his mother dies. It’s hard not to believe that Constantine is remembering battles with a grief of his own.

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Balzic drinks himself silly, is rude to the kindly mourners, his wife and daughters among them. He is the perfect portrait of a man suddenly confronting his own mortality and assessing his own achievements, which considered under the guise of eternity he finds inadequate. Having outfoxed a pompous new mayor and most of the State Police muckymucks in previous novels, Balzic discovers the one situation his street smarts can’t handle. He is funny, sad and quite believable.

Almost as afterthoughts, he uncovers the real story on the protesting minister and deals sympathetically with the distraught mother who guesses her uptight son may have done the stabbing.

Constantine’s publisher, Otto Penzler, remarked recently that the writer may be on the verge of winding up the Balzic series and coming out from beneath the pseudonym. It would be too bad to lose the chief, but nice to acknowledge the real man who has created him so vividly.

Santa Barbara’s Sue Grafton continues to work her imaginative way through the alphabet. Her private eye, Kinsey Milhone, has now achieved G Is for Gumshoe (Henry Holt: $16.95; 261 pp.). She is 33, 5-feet-6, 118 pounds, and her apartment, gutted by a bomb blast during a previous caper, has been redecorated.

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Yet all is not wonderful, naturally. She’s the subject of a contract written by a thug she helped send to prison, and the hit guy or guys come nastily close. Her new case is to find and return an eccentric old woman living in a no-rent compound deep in the desert. The trail, as usual, leads not only from the desert back to Santa Teresa (as Grafton calls Santa Barbara, to protect the innocent) but into a family past and the madness born of greed.

Milhone, tough and resourceful but less abrasive than Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, is a sympathetic figure whose character grows richer and rounder with each outing--and with 19 letters left to go.

A widening and deepening regionalism is one of the characteristics of present American crime fiction, and hardly a locale from Vermont to Puget Sound has not been found fraught with murder and other deadly sins.

Frederick D. Huebner is a Seattle lawyer who writes about a Seattle lawyer named Matt Riordan. Picture Postcard (Fawcett/Columbine: $16.95; 281 pp.) is the fourth Riordan caper, this one involving the newly valuable work of an artist who presumably died in a suicidal car crash into deep waters nearly a half-century before.

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The artist’s granddaughter, launching an art gallery featuring some of his work, receives a freshly painted post card that is an uncannily good forgery (if it is a forgery) of his style. She suspects some paintings in a rival show of her grandfather’s work may be fakes, and she is unpleasantly warned to shut up.

Riordan’s investigations on her behalf lead back to a art-colony houseboat party at which a young model was murdered 50 years ago, not long before the suicide. There are survivors, among them the artist who did time for the killing and the lawyer who tried to defend him.

The plot is solid if unspectacular, but Huebner’s comfortable familiarity with the Northwest and its art scene give the book its fresh, brisk charm.

One of the newest of the print detectives to find his way onto television is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who first appeared in “Last Bus to Woodstock.” He is British, resident in Oxford (Dexter is a Cambridge man) and is irascible where P. D. James’ Dalgleish is dour.

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The ingenious The Wench Is Dead (St. Martin’s: $15.95, 200 pp.) is clearly a homage to Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time.” Tey’s man, marooned in a hospital bed, rethought the character of Richard III and found him innocent. Dexter’s Morse, hospitalized for an ulcer brought on by a mixture of irascibility and strong drink, and maddened with inactivity, finds a book in the hospital library about a murder case more than a century old.

A girl was found murdered, her body floating in a canal near Oxford. Two men were hanged, but Morse is persuaded they were innocent. Time would have taken care of the guilty as well and it is as cold a trail as they ever get. But Morse, using his bed as command post, gets a young librarian and his long- suffering sergeant to do his researches for him.

In the end he does leave his bed, finding by flashlight some ancient markings beneath layers of peeling wallpaper that make everything clear. Puzzle mysteries are really not much done these days, but this is one--an author challenging himself to do something fiendishly clever, and succeeding.

Keating’s The Bedside Companion to Crime (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 191 pp.) is just that, a delightful compendium of essays and oddments about crime fiction. There are brief, biographical tributes to Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Emma Lathen and several others; a long and thoughtful appreciation of P.D. James’ “A Taste for Death”; an essay on the great villains of crime fiction; notes on pseudonyms and on the baffling title changes when British tales hit the American market; a summary of all the send-ups of Sherlock Holmes, and so on into the night.

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The Writer’s Complete Crime Reference Book by Martin Roth (Writer’s Digest Books: $19.95; 308 pp.) is not exactly engrossing bedtime reading, but for the novice eager to try writing crime fiction, what better place to find several pages worth of lethal instruments, smuggling techniques, criminal slang, police codes and other police procedures, chapters on criminal law and court procedures, the forensic lab, organized crime and secrets of surveillance. All you need is the odd motive or two and you’re in business.


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