CRIMINAL PURSUITS : She Saves the World and Can Cook, Too

Margot Kaufman's most recent book is "This Damn House: My Subcontract With America" (Villard)

I can understand why Patricia Cornwell has sold a zillion books, the latest of which is Cause of Death. She has a remarkable ability to make smug heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta's every meal seem compelling--"The lasagna was superb because I had drained fresh mozzarella in dishcloths so it did not weep too much during baking." Gifted at evoking time and place, when Cornwell describes a winter's night you reflexively turn up the heat. Most impressive is the way she casually inserts extraordinary details. I now know that you can hold uranium in your bare hand with no ill effects (don't try this at home) and that "the ability to smell cyanide is a sex-linked recessive trait that is inherited by less than 30% of the population." Naturally, Scarpetta, whose curriculum vitae also includes chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, attorney and FBI consultant, is blessed with a superior nose.

Still, Scarpetta has so many attributes that I can't help rooting for her to fail. The mystery opens on New Year's Eve, when a reporter's body is found 30 feet under the icy Elizabeth River. It's freezing out and the Navy's thoughtfully sent a few SEALS to retrieve the corpse, but Scarpetta, a certified diver--surprise!--insists on inspecting the scene of death. She immediately realizes that this reporter hasn't accidentally drowned while hunting for Civil War trinkets and also suspects that the local authorities are trying to hamper her investigation. The plot unfolds at a brisk pace, then suddenly, it drops off the deep end. A supremacist cult with a mad charismatic leader (is there any other kind?) takes over a nuclear power plant and the only person who can save the world is guess who--with help from her moody computer genius/FBI agent niece Lucy and the broody police Capt. Pete Marino.

Take this book with a large grain of salt and Prozac please.

Memo to Jane Haddam. Re: Your new Gregor Demarkian holiday mystery, And One to Die On. Please stop torturing your faithful readers. For 10 books I've waited for former FBI agent Demarkian, the "Armenian American Hercule Poirot," to realize that he is in love with Bennis Hannaford, the madcap Main Line heiress turned best-selling fantasy novelist. At the end of your last book, they were flying off to Paris, albeit with their eccentric Armenian neighbors in tow. (Hannaford moved into Demarkian's building several mysteries ago, but he has yet to get the hint.) Naturally, I assumed that this time, when the couple flew to a rocky island off the coast of Maine ostensibly to celebrate the 100th birthday of silent movie star Tasheba Kent, he'd finally take romantic action, after he solved the inescapable murders. Instead, I got a plot reminiscent of "Sunset Boulevard," too much bad weather and a lackluster denouement. You're a terrific pool-side companion, but until this romance issue gets resolved, I'm only reading you in paperback.

Linda Fairstein has been in charge of the Manhattan district attorney's sex crimes unit for the last 20 years and has prosecuted the high-profile preppie murderer and Central Park jogger rape case. So it's understandable that she hasn't had much spare time to hone her fiction skills. Final Jeopardy, her debut novel, is a self-conscious thriller about Alexandra Cooper, a New York D.A. in charge of a sex crimes unit who wakes up one morning and reads her own obituary in the Post. But the police have made a mistake: It was her movie star friend, Isabella Lascar, who was murdered while staying at the independently wealthy D.A.'s beach home.

"Final Jeopardy" is crammed with tidbits of information that are designed to bring you into the author's world. A reader discovers Cooper's favorite take-out restaurants, the penal code provisions for prosecuting stalkers, the best men's store in New York, the importance of keeping rape victims separated before a line-up and the history of Martha's Vineyard--but while the author's own life is no doubt fascinating, her fictional counterpart's falls flat. Perhaps it is her penchant for dialogue such as, "I have been stabbed in the back--no, in the heart--by that miserable bastard." Or perhaps it's just that I've seen all this on "NYPD Blue."

Friends for Life, a first novel by British literary agent Carol Smith, is a deftly plotted, engaging mystery, albeit longer on sex and cosmetics than guns and gore. The author, who owes a huge literary debt to Judith Krantz, follows the oddly intertwined lives of five women who meet in the gynecological ward of a London hospital. While a certain amount of characterization is achieved by career choice and wardrobe--"Today, Vivienne wore beige suede, with a casually draped Hermes scarf and slim, well-fitted lace-up shoes. . ."--the characters--socialite Vivienne, blowzy chef Beth (violet silk kimono), wan nurse's assistant Catherine (candy-striper uniform), vagabond Sally (jeans and skimpy T-shirt) and American photojournalist Georgy (pristine Burberry)--are singular and lively. Beware, at first the clues are so subtle, it is tempting to skip over them, but midway, without warning, suspense rises like a souffle and keeps you riveted until the end.

An intimate knowledge of Alaskan Malamutes isn't necessary to appreciate Susan Conant's Stud Rites, billed as a "dog lover's mystery." But a reader who has never experienced the insanely competitive world of purebred dog shows will miss quite a bit. For instance, an outsider may question the plausibility of the plot, which revolves around several human luminaries of the Malamute universe being killed with a blunt object during the National Specialty (imagine the Miss America contest for Alaskan Malamutes) for what seems like a petty motive. However, in my guise as Hollywood correspondent for Pug Talk magazine, I have interviewed many breeders and never have I encountered such intense intramural bitchiness. (These aficionados would have you poisoned for owning an animal whose nails, in their opinion, were a tad too white.) So I can vouch that Conant's characterizations are dead-on and her descriptions of doggy kitsch--most notably a Malamute-shaped lamp trimmed with a dead champion's fur--are hilarious.

Unfortunately, her heroine, Dog Life writer Holly Winter, deserves a trophy for least amount of effort ever expended by a literary sleuth, so don't expect any action more gripping than taking her dog for a walk.

****

CAUSE OF DEATH. By Patricia Cornwell (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $25.95; 340 pp.)

AND ONE TO DIE ON. By Jane Haddam (Bantam: $21.95: 304 pp.)

FINAL JEOPARDY. By Linda Fairstein (Scribner: $23; 400 pp.)

FRIENDS FOR LIFE. By Carol Smith (Warner Books: $21.95; 432 pp.)

STUD RITES. By Susan Conant (Doubleday: $21: 269 pp.)

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