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CRIMINAL PURSUITS

<i> Dick Lochte is the author of "The Neon Smile" (Simon & Schuster)</i>

In Walter Satterthwait’s witty historical mystery ESCAPADE (St. Martin’s Press, $22.95, 355 pp.) , Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arranges a little seance at a stately manor house on the English countryside and invites his skeptical friend Harry Houdini. Their host, the Viscount of Axminster, a recent convert to communism, is waiting for his addled, bedridden father to die so that he can turn the estate over to the people. The elegant viscountess seems to be in total denial, particularly when it comes to their sexually aggressive daughter. And the other weekend guests--among them an American detective (who narrates the tale), a disagreeable dowager and her plucky traveling companion (whose letters to a friend provide a second point of view), a dazzling widow, an arrogant nobleman and a Viennese psychiatrist--all seem to be harboring at least one sinister secret apiece. Add sneaky servants, ghosts, a locked-room murder and a malevolent master of disguises who has threatened to make Houdini disappear forever and you have all the elements needed for a classy and classic whodunit.

I should mention that “Escapade” is not the first mystery novel to feature Doyle; also new at the stores is “The Six Messiahs,” the second of Mark Frost’s inappropriately lurid tales involving Sherlock’s sire. “Escapade” isn’t even the first novel to team Doyle with the great Houdini. Last year, William Hjortsberg used the duo in his thriller “Nevermore.” But Satterthwait more than makes up for any lack of high-concept originality with a seemingly effortless, beguiling style, and a mesmerizing story, smartly told. He also--unlike his book’s hapless medium whose tricks are quickly dismissed by Houdini--successfully conjures up a set of very welcome spirits. There are shades of Agatha Christie’s clever plotting, Dorothy L. Sayers’ playful tweaking of the British upper-class and the aforementioned no-nonsense private eye who might have stepped from the pages of Black Mask. What more could a mystery lover ask?

Another literary spirit, the proletarian antihero, is rekindled by THE DITCHED BLONDE (Walker, $19.95, 168 pp.) , Harold Adams’ latest addition to his series about Carl Wilcox, set in the Depression era. Wilcox, who may be fiction’s only hobo sleuth, drifts around South Dakota, earning a meager existence as a sign painter while ferreting out murderers on the side. Originally he solved crimes because his drifter status made him an automatic suspect. But a guy can collar only so many killers before the word begins to spread, and, here, Wilcox is asked by a Greenhill, S.D., policeman to park his Model T long enough to poke his nose into the unsolved four-year-old slaying of a local teen-ager.

The mystery is a properly baffling whodunit but it is Adams’ lean prose and precise sense of period and place that distinguishes this novel. The author grew up in South Dakota during the ‘30s, and his memory of small-town life seems as on-the-money as any of the novels that were written back then. It’s like discovering a long-lost manuscript by James M. Cain or Horace McCoy, with maybe just a bit more light at the end of Adams’ tunnel. Journeying with him and Wilcox through small towns as yet untouched by megalopolitan sprawl, we get a feel for the way things were. Life was simpler. People worked harder. And there were fewer options. But as Adams’ rawboned novels suggest, murder was definitely one of them.

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An essential lesson to be gleaned from observing the sport of kings is that there is no sure thing. The same may now be said about horse-racing mysteries. Sid Halley, Dick Francis’ intrepid hero whose career as a jockey ended when a thoroughbred’s hoof destroyed his left hand, has appeared in two of the author’s better entries--"Odds Against” and “Whip Hand.” One might therefore assume that a new Halley-narrated caper would find him returning to form. But COME TO GRIEF (Putnam’s, $23.95, 320 pp.) is considerably less than we’ve come to expect from Francis.

The setup here is that Halley has accused a close friend--a horseman and a beloved television personality--of mutilating thoroughbreds. Because British law prohibits public discussion of the case, our hero is forced to keep his own counsel while the press and the public brand him a liar and worse. This is an intriguing story line, but Francis uses it primarily to send the ever-despondent Halley down a track he has already ridden. Once again he is lumbered by bouts of depression over his lost hand; once again he must try to outpace a loathsome villain who has designs on removing the remaining one.

Since Halley informs us in the first few pages who the guilty party is (quite a bit of the story is told in flashback), this is not so much a novel of detection as it is of endurance--Halley’s and the reader’s. The first half is unremittingly depressing--whenever Halley’s mood threatens to lighten up a little, Francis sends him on visits to a little girl who’s dying of cancer--and the rest is only slightly more upbeat. If this is your idea of a good time, enjoy. Otherwise you may want to wait for the next race.

Staying on track with the animal that Ian Fleming found “dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle,” we could do much worse than Jody Jaffe’s debut mystery, HORSE OF A DIFFERENT KILLER (Fawcett Columbine, $21, 288 pp.) . Its protagonist, Natalie Gold, a fashion writer for a Charlotte, N.C., newspaper, gets a chance to move up to Page One when a blackmailer and horse-mutilator (there’s a lot of that going around these days) is murdered at the farm where she boards her show horse. Because of her insider status and familiarity with the local horsy set, Natalie gets to share a byline as well as bright repartee and light romance with the paper’s top investigative reporter, Henry Goode. It’s a breezy, entertaining yarn with a surprising and satisfying denouement. And, because Jaffe is herself an equestrian who worked as a feature writer for the Charlotte Observer, the twin worlds of dressage and journalism are rendered with unwavering credibility. A blue-ribbon debut.

Finally, a few words about Ruth Rendell’s SIMISOLA (Crown, $23,320 pp.) . Like her other novels featuring Inspector Reg Wexford of the Kingsmarkham police, it is a mixture of detection, sociology and family relations. It begins with a missing girl, the daughter of Wexford’s doctor, who was last seen at the town’s employment center. Rendell’s eye is as clear as always, and her descriptions of life in the small English town seem especially well observed, particularly when focusing on the racial aspects of the case--the girl is Nigerian--and the effect that economic pressures are having on Kingsmarkham’s various social strata. The investigation is twisty and surprising, but the sleuthing of Wexford and his assistant, Mike Burden, is, as usual, exemplary. At the end, however, coincidences play such a crucial part and Rendell is so relentless in tying up ends that weren’t that loose in the first place that one may wonder if she isn’t indulging in a bit of self-parody. After 39 books, 17 of them Wexfords, she’s certainly entitled.

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Champlin on Order

Charles Champlin’s final seven Criminal Pursuits columns--including his list of favorites of 1994--have been compiled into a booklet available from Times on Demand. The price is $7 plus $1.50 for delivery. To order, call (800) 440-3441 and enter Item No. 4511. To order by mail, send a check to Times on Demand Publications, P.O. Box 60395, Los Angeles, Calif. 90060.


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