Murder, He Wrote

BLOODHOUNDS By Peter Lovesey; Mysterious Press: 368 pp., $22

WORST CASE SCENARIO By Michael Bowen; Crown: 210 pp., $24

MY GAL SUNDAY By Mary Higgins Clark; Simon & Schuster: 244 pp., $23

HATCHET JOB By Harold Adams; Walker and Co.: 153 pp., $19.95

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The locked-room murder, a familiar element during the detective story's golden era, is as rare these days as Raymond Chandler's fat postman. That's why it's such a surprise to find two of them in this month's book bag. The first comes courtesy of Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds, an elegant procedural featuring British detective Peter Diamond who, after some sleuthing on his own, has just rejoined the Bath Police Department. Lovesey is a playful author who obviously had a fine old time lumbering the very contemporary Diamond with cases--the theft of a rare stamp from a museum and a corpse discovered in a sealed houseboat--more appropriate to the puzzle novels John Dickson Carr and others concocted some five or six decades ago.

But his fun, and the reader's, doesn't stop there. The book's title refers to a group of avid mystery fans who meet to discuss their favorite authors. Just as did their real-life counterparts, they argue the merits of cozies over hard-boiled, the Brits over the Americans, Brother Cadfael over the cops of James Ellroy. They also are forced to endure the self-designated "intellectual" who insists, meeting after meeting, that Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" is the only mystery worth discussing.

When one of them is murdered--surprisingly, it's the fan of Ellroy, not Eco--the others come under the scrutiny of Diamond, who's also trying to ferret out the pilferer of the rare stamp. And it's his witty way of solving the twin crimes while simultaneously getting the better of a particularly obnoxious fellow policeman that gives this mystery a special distinction that "bloodhounds" of both classic and modern mystery should thoroughly enjoy.

The other locked-room murder takes place in a West Virginia hotel in the midst of the Contemporary Policy Dynamics Conference. The conference, according to Michael Bowen's Worst Case Scenario, an event that draws Washington folk "looking for the usual things"--a job, money, information, contacts and a piece of paper that could lead to a political scandal to top even Watergate. The victim is a young woman in possession of the paper. The suspects include a presidential hopeful, a power broker, a respected research scientist and assorted other D.C. denizens. The author's series hero, retired Foreign Service veteran Richard Michaelson, is drawn into the murder investigation by the woman's fiance, a blundering hard-sell super-salesman who is not above suspicion.

Bowen's locked room is not quite as ingenious a creation as Lovesey's, but it will do. And he has added yet another prop from the olden days--a coded message that might have perplexed Sir Henry Merrivale and Ellery Queen working in tandem. The dust jacket suggests that Bowen is a mixture of Agatha Christie and Joe Klein. He does have a knack for tricky plotting. And his knowledge of the way things work in the nation's capital is impressive, especially since he does not seem to be an insider. One of the snottier characters quips, "If you don't know [the news] before it's on CNN, you might as well be a lawyer in Milwaukee."

That's what Bowen is--a lawyer in Milwaukee. And in this instance he seems to be overcompensating for it. His dialogue is frequently witty ("Deborah Moodie has become the civil service equivalent of Kansas City: She's gone about as far as she can go"), but there's too much of it. Too much insider lingo also. Did you know that "carrying the football" refers to following the president with a briefcase filled with nuclear launch codes? Instead of being able to go with the flow of the story, the reader (or at least this reader) has to strain to keep up with, and possibly translate, the fast-paced patter. Still, Bowen seems to have the real stuff. He's funny and cynical and is capable of conjuring up a credible scenario. If he can just relax a little, he may even become the logical successor to the late Ross Thomas, the absolute master when it came to delineating the rascals and rogues and ruffians who rule the Beltway.

With just about everyone agreeing that the short story is all but toes up, I'm not sure how I feel about the alchemy that has turned Mary Higgins Clark's slight tales into gold. How much does she get for a book these days--$4 million, $9 million, $10 million? Whatever, since publishers have little in common with Santa Claus, even at Christmas, I'm sure the tomes are worth every penny. Still, her new book, My Gal Sunday, consists of just four short stories, which breaks down to a per-item price tag that should make the Guinness folks sit up and take notice. This is good news for short-story writers. But, even with the knowledge that the collection has found a niche way up on the bestseller lists, I wonder if it's such good news for readers.

These original tales were inspired, the author tells us, by the old radio soap opera that shares the book's title. It asked the question: "Can a little girl from a mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of England's richest, most handsome lord, Lord Henry Brinthrop?" Clark's stories ask: "Can the daughter of a New Jersey motorman find happiness as the congresswoman wife of beloved former president of the United States Henry Britland IV, even though they both seem to attract criminals like magnets?" The problem here is obviously one of credibility. I have no trouble believing in brilliant Belgian detectives or snoopy old ladies or boozy married couples who can outthink master criminals. But a congresswoman and her ex-president husband I'm not sure I can buy. Just the idea of a beloved former president is something of a stretch.

The stories themselves--the kidnapping of Sunday, the former president's haunting boyhood memory of the disappearance of a Latin American prime minister, the indictment of his former secretary of state for the murder of his mistress and a warm-as-chestnuts Christmas tale in which the Britlands are visited by a little French lad on the run--are, with the exception of the first mentioned, pretty bland material. The kidnap plot, titled "They All Ran After the President's Wife," has a harder edge and manages to generate the sort of suspense that fans of Clark's novels have come to expect. But, for the price of a hardcover, one should expect just a bit more.

"The town's first name was Mouseturd because of what the original resident found in his bedroll the night he moved in. He chickened out and changed the name to Mustard when the first woman arrived." Thus begins Harold Adams' new Carl Wilcox mystery, Hatchet Job. It makes one wonder if Adams might have meant this as a homage of sorts to Dashiell Hammett, who began his "Red Harvest" like this: "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called a shirt a shoit." It's not the only Hammett-like aspect of Adams' work. The Wilcox novels are set during the Great Depression, roughly the same period in which Hammett's novels appeared. There's a similarity of leanness of style, of straight-ahead first-person narration. Like Hammett's Continental Op, Carl Wilcox is an unpretentious, tough, plain-spoken man who gets the job done. And there is, under the character's (and the novel's) blunt exterior, a strain of genuine sophistication.

In previous books there was an aimlessness to Wilcox's life as he moved from town to town in South Dakota earning a living as a journeyman sign painter. More recently, thanks to his success at solving crimes, city officials with corpses on their hands have been seeking him out. In the new novel, a policeman friend asks him to investigate the ax murder of his brother-in-law, an unpleasant cuss who happened to have been the town cop of the aforementioned Mustard. With the begrudging approval of the mayor, Wilcox assumes the town cop mantle himself and begins to interrogate the long list of people with grudges against his predecessor, mainly women he'd manhandled and husbands he'd cuckolded.

The novel is almost the antithesis of high concept. No earthshaking elements. No buzzwords. No characters who seem to have stepped from the pages of Vanity Fair. Just solid plotting, believable townsfolk who exhibit realistic behavior in the presence of murder, descriptions of rural America in the 1930s so genuine you can feel the grit on your hands and a gruff, likable hero who says what he thinks. The dust jacket features a detail from a Thomas Hart Benton painting, a solitary flivver parked off a dirt road beside a red building. It's a remarkable bit of art, seemingly simplistic but, in fact, brilliantly evocative of time and place and suggesting something vaguely disquieting. In this case you can tell a book by its cover.

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