THE QUEEN OF THE TAMBOURINE by Jane Gardam (St. Martin's Press: $20.95; 227 pp.) Mystery fans will enjoy this Whitbread Award-winning English novel even though there isn't a corpse or a detective in sight. The narrator, Eliza Peabody, is going mad. The 50ish wife of a diplomat, she lives in a cozy London suburb, volunteers at a hospice and, judging from others' reactions to her, is a world-class chatterbox and busybody. The novel consists of letters she writes to a former neighbor, Joan, who has ditched her husband and run off to Central Asia--letters that, we gradually realize, are full of delusions, often not sent and never answered.

Jane Gardam ("The Pineapple Bay Hotel," "Crusoe's Daughter") finds ingenious solutions to the problems a narrator like Eliza poses: How can we believe a thing she says? How can we separate real-life happenings from her manic imagination? At what point does she cease to be a figure of fun and become somebody we care about? How can the classic British comedy of eccentricity be played out against a background in which young men die of AIDS, the shah of Iran's firing squads echo in the night and babies might drown? Like mystery fans flipping back to check the clues they missed, we will be tempted to reread this novel just to see how Gardam did it.

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