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An Amusing Whodunit With an Endearing Sports Agent

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I couldn’t imagine a more appealing sports agent than Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire until I read Harlan Coben’s “The Final Detail” (Delacorte Press, $22.95, 305 pages), which features the endearingly neurotic Myron Bolitar. Coben (who gets craftier and funnier with each outing) has written the most personable and involving whodunit I’ve read all year.

The novel opens with Myron tucked away on a Caribbean island, nursing emotional wounds suffered in the last book with the help of a CNN anchorwoman. A nice Jewish boy from the New Jersey suburbs who lived in his parents’ basement until he was 30-something, Myron is predictably guilt-ridden when his idyll is terminated by the arrival of his sidekick, well-bred sociopath Windsor Horne Lockwood III, “dressed in a white button-down Oxford and Lilly Pulitzer shorts with colors loud enough to repel sharks.” Win brings awful news: Myron’s client, Yankee relief pitcher Clu Haid, has been murdered and Myron’s partner, Esperanza Diaz, charged with the crime. Naturally, Esperanza doesn’t want help (why do people in trouble always turn down help?).

Of course, Myron and Win ignore her, and their efforts send the reader on a hilarious tour of over-the-top New York, from Take a Guess nightclub, where patrons gamble on the gender of whomever they pick up, to New Jersey’s Brooklake Country Club, where “there was no brook, no lake and they were not in the country.” We meet Big Cyndi, a veteran of the female wrestling circuit who likes “diversity in her follicular tint” and had her name legally changed so her official documents read, “Cyndi, Big.”

The plot unfolds like one of those paper “cootie catchers” I made in grade school, slowly but always unpredictably until it comes to a startling climax that somehow manages to stay on the near side of plausibility. The only flaw is that the author assumes the reader knows exactly why Myron is on the brink of a moral implosion and fails to provide an adequate explanation. Still, it’s a good excuse to check out his backlist.

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I simply couldn’t resist the opening lines in Lawrence Shames’ “Welcome to Paradise” (Villard, $22.95, 220 pages): “Was the clams,” said Nicky Scotto, who has just returned from a hellish vacation in the Catskills, where he got food poisoning. Nicky’s certain he was poisoned by his rival, Big Al Marracotta, whom he has resented ever since Mafia boss Tony Eggs took control of the fish market away from Nicky and gave it to Al.

“Ya gonna ice a guy over some funky seafood?” asks his friend Donnie Falcone.

Nick is not unreasonable. “All I want is that . . . guy should suffer like I suffered. A week total misery. Justice.”

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And as luck would have it, Big Al Marracotta (who is all of 5 feet, 2 inches) is driving down to Key West in a gray Lincoln with New York personalized plates that say “Big Al.” Accompanying him is Katy Sansone, his disenchanted mis-tress, and Ripper, his cowardly Rottweiler. Also en route to Key West is Allan Tuschman, a New Jersey furniture salesman who won the “semiannual bonus giveaway for top sales in dinettes"--a week at the Hotel Paradise. The amiable 6-foot-3 Tuschman is driving down with Fifi, “a Shih Tzu with an attitude.” His silver Lexus has New Jersey personalized plates that say--what else?--"Big Al.”

The author sets up the inevitable comedy of errors like a dealer laying out a winning hand of the card game casino. Shames continuously shuffles, collects and discards his wickedly inventive sets of pairs. Most notable are the memorable thugs that Nicky hires to menace Big Al--Chop Parilla, a car thief and sometime insurance fire starter, and Squid Berman, a loose cannon who prides himself on his creativity. Katy, the wild card in the pack, is too much a central casting mob girlfriend to make an impression, but the Key West locale was so real I felt my hair frizz.

*

In the mood for an escape? Try Sophie Dunbar’s Agatha Christie-inspired “Shiveree” (Intrigue Press, $22.95, 304 pages) with hairstylist-sleuth Claire Clairebourne. Set in a posh New Orleans hotel at Christmastime (don’t ask me why) and drenched with local color, customs and eccentricity, the book provides painstaking details about an upscale Southern wedding where guests had to throw out alibis instead of rice. The telltale clue, one only a hairdresser could know for sure, is ingenious.

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The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O’Gorman on audio books.

For more reviews, read Book Review

* Sunday: Ira Berlin on “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”; Benjamin Schwarz on “Remembering Slavery”; Anthony Platt on prison stories; and William H. McNeill on why history matters.


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