You've Got (Very Chilling) Mail

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With "Tell No One" (Delacorte, $22.95, 339 pages), Harlan Coben interrupts his award-winning series about sleuthing sports agent Myron Bolitar to deliver a compelling and original suspense thriller. In its prologue, narrator David Beck and his beloved wife, Elizabeth, celebrate a wedding anniversary by going for a midnight swim on a secluded private lake in Pennsylvania.

This is an even worse idea than taking your spouse for a face-to-face with a Komodo dragon. Elizabeth is kidnapped, and David is left unconscious and sinking into the lake without a bubble. Chapter 1 finds David inexplicably among the living eight years later.

He tells us that Elizabeth's brutalized corpse was found shortly after her abduction and that she was a victim of KillRoy, a serial murderer now in prison. Still in mourning and gloomily facing the dual anniversaries of their marriage and the tragedy, David discovers an e-mail message that could only have come from his supposedly late wife.

This intriguing beginning could lead to a number of subgenres within the mystery envelope. For example, a lazier writer than Coben might opt for something supernatural, just as one with less imagination might be tempted to bring KillRoy center stage. Instead, Coben takes the hard high road of careful plot construction, in which all the eerie events stem from chillingly earthbound causes.

But aside from my assuring you that "Tell No One" is considerably more clever and unique than either a ghost story or yet another serial killer yarn, it's a little difficult to get into its specific delights without giving up secrets better left to the novel itself. Let it suffice to say that you will definitely not be bored.

Sue Grafton's "'P' Is for Peril" (Putnam, $26.95, 368 pages) finds private detective Kinsey Millhone in pre-Internet, pre-cellular phone 1986, engaged in two pursuits. The first involves an elderly doctor, the administrator of a nursing home, who's been among the missing for nine weeks. His ex-wife hires the detective to find him, alive or dead, hinting that his current, much younger spouse might have done him harm.

This element of the novel--the Kinsey-as-professional-detective section--is as beautifully plotted and presented as any of Grafton's previous alphabet murders. Her client is a dreadful woman, arrogant and demanding (and cheap), while the suspect, the new wife, is charming and gracious.

Regardless, Kinsey earns her pay, making a mistake here and there, but eventually getting the job done. As was true of the cases of her spiritual father, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, the solving of the mystery leads not to the happiness of victory but the weariness of regret. The truth sets no one free. And yet, by getting to it, Kinsey once again proves her professionalism. She's a believably human, flawed character who is very good at what she does.

This flawed business may be slightly overdone in the novel's other plot element--the detective's search for new office space. The location she settles on is a bit too ideal to be legit, and the result provides the "peril" promised by the book's title. To get her usually clever and cautious heroine to wind up in jeopardy, Grafton slips her a stupid pill. Happily, by book's end, its effect seems to have worn off.

If Grafton's novels celebrate gender equality in crime fighting, Janet Evanovich's popular Stephanie Plum series seems to be pushing us toward the opposite conclusion. Stephanie is a New Jersey princess who has decided to add color to her life by becoming a bounty hunter.

It's a TV sitcom setup: Ditsy, self-obsessed girly-girl somehow manages to surprise seasoned male pros by bringing home the bounty. However, thanks to Evanovich's flair for snappy patter and surprisingly original comic situations, the results are considerably funnier, and certainly bawdier, than most tube material.

In "Seven Up," (St. Martin's, 320 pages, $24.95), Stephanie is assigned the thankless task of bringing in an ancient but still dangerous hit man named Eddie DeCooch who happens to have dated her grandmother. Not only is her quarry lethal and remarkably wily, our heroine has a number of personal problems to distract her.

She's being propelled into a marriage she isn't sure she wants. Her longing for her co-worker, Ranger (think Benjamin Bratt on steroids), is increasing toward the point of no return. Her stoner pal Mooner has gone missing. And her perfect sister's perfect marriage has fallen apart.

Usually, the Plum books offer a string of gags and goofs without too much attention paid to plot. Here, however, there's an actual story line, a chilling homicidal maniac of a villain, and, near novel's end, a fair amount of genuine suspense. One hopes Stephanie's fans won't mind too much.

*

Dick Lochte, the author of "Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder" (Five Star) and the prize-winning novel, "Sleeping Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

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