CRIMINAL PURSUITS

The amazing thing about the mystery genre is the seemingly infinite number of crime-infested colonies out there. Whenever I think I've discovered someone new, it turns out the author has won all kinds of awards or the detective is working on his umpteenth case. Invariably, I'm sucked into yet another alternative universe and can't rest until I've devoured the whole oeuvre, the same way I binged on Nancy Drew when I was 9.

The Dark Room, by Edgar award winner Minette Walters, is a wily psychological thriller. Jinx Kingsley, daughter of a British media tycoon, wakes up in a private hospital after being tossed from her car as it hurtled toward a concrete wall. She has post-traumatic amnesia, but she maintains she's not suicidal--as the police claim--even though her fiance has run off with her best friend and her neighbors report a previous suicide attempt. When the former fiance and friend turn up dead, the appropriately named Jinx becomes the chief suspect. The plot is as twisty as Highway 1 at Big Sur and the denouement caught me completely off-guard. Perfect for a long plane ride.

Fans of the late George Simenon should enjoy Dean Fuller's insouciant Death of a Critic. Tuba-playing Chief Inspector Alex Grismolet and his dapper sidekick Varnas must figure out who killed Virgile de la Pagerie, Paris' most despised theater critic, in between savory cassoulets, vintage reds and te^te-a-te^tes with exquisite ballerinas. Add a soupcon of theater history, an array of eccentric suspects ranging from an aging Vichy war criminal to the ultimate method actress and picturesque French villages. The plot is a bit confusing, but Fuller's prose is so sensual that I didn't mind flipping back to see what I missed.

I have it on good authority that Stephen Greenleaf has a cult following and after reading Flesh Wounds, the latest John Marshall Tanner mystery, I'm not surprised. Tanner is a broody sleuth, prone to observations such as, "I don't know anyone who isn't lonely," but he's efficient and good-hearted. When his former lover Peggy Nettleton begs him to come to Seattle and find her fiance's missing daughter, he plunges into a sleazy world of designer coffee beans, digital technology and debutantes on heroin. Greenleaf plots better than almost anyone in the business and he gets inside even the most minor characters' heads. Now if he could only lighten up.

Imagine if your kid brother and his college roommate teamed up to solve crimes, and you've got the tone of Harlan Coben's engaging Dropshot. Sports agent/detective Myron Bolitar, a former Jewish basketball star who still lives at home with his parents and plays parlor games such as "name the TV 'Batman' criminal," investigates the murder of Valerie Simpson, a former tennis wunderkind. Assisted by his sidekick Windsor Horne Lockwood III, a blue-blood Terminator who meditates by watching X-rated videos of his romantic exploits, Myron takes on the Mob, a U.S. senator and the tennis coach from hell. The plot twists aren't surprising, but his depiction of the sports marketing scene is hilarious. Coben has been nominated in the best original paperback category for the 1996 Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Awards.

I winced at the jacket copy describing the heroine of Jean Taylor's The Last of Her Lies as the "street-smart lesbian PI, Maggie Garrett." While not nearly as keen a social observer as her counterpart--the street-smart heterosexual PI, Kinsey Milhone--Garrett is intuitive, resourceful and far better dressed, though she has a tendency to go overboard. Hired to track down Kelly Henry, who disappeared after accusing her gay therapist of sexual abuse, Garret not only moves into the missing woman's decrepit apartment building, she goes to work in her last two places of employment. The detective's sexual orientation offers the reader an intimate look at San Francisco's gay subculture and a racy make-out scene.

THE DARK ROOM, By Minette Walters (Putnam: $23.95; 381 pp.)

DEATH OF A CRITIC. By Dean Fuller (Little, Brown & Co: $21.95; 298 pp.)

FLESH WOUNDS, By Stephen Greenleaf (Scribner's: $21.95; 304 pp.)

THE LAST OF HER LIES, By Jean Taylor (Seal Press: $10.95, paper; 240 pp.)

DROPSHOT, By Harlan Coben (Dell: $4.99, paper; 330 pp.)

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