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No Word From Winifred: by Amanda Cross (Dutton: $14.95; 217 pp.) : WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES by Lawrence Block (Arbor House: $15.95; 239 pp.) : THE CONTRACT by J. W. Rhoads (Holt: $12.95; 180 pp.) : UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS by Kate Gallison (Little, Brown: $14.95; 137 pp.)

July 06, 1986|Charles Champlin

The classical mystery, dense with false clues en route to a twisty ending, does not surface very often any more. The true heirs of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh are few, and less prolific.

But the crime novel--its focus on settings, characters and relationships, long on action and suspense if short on bafflement as such--flourishes inexhaustibly.

Amanda Cross, who is actually Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor of English at Columbia, invented her detecting academic Kate Fansler about eight novels ago. The latest, "No Word From Winifred," is a clever enough teaser. What indeed has become of Winifred? It is a puzzler solved by research, deduction and confrontation.

But the larger interest of the book is that it is in effect a feminist mystery, enriched considerably by the author's exploration of the angers and frustrations of being a woman in a man's world. Much of this commentary is in the form of a journal kept by the missing Winifred, a scholar-writer.

"Often we women," Winifred says, "think we have fallen in love with men when we have only fallen in love with the experience of being male in our world." And, bitterly, "Who would take a girl if they could get a boy?"

Cross, a wife and a mother of three, ranges over the varieties of women's experiences in and out of marriage and careers, and does so with a passion and eloquence quite removed from the arch and pedantic dialogue with which much of the exposition in this and the earlier Fansler stories is conducted.

"When the Sacred Ginmill Closes" is another outing for Lawrence Block's hard-drinking ex-cop Matt Scudder (from the earlier "Eight Million Ways to Die"). Block is awfully good, with an ear for dialogue, an eye for low-life types and a gift for fast and effortless storytelling that bear comparison with Elmore Leonard. But Block seems gentler and more compassionate, seeing the nastinesses of the world with sadness rather than cynical scorn. Rough things happen as Scudder looks into a murder plus a hold-up and an extortion plot at a couple of neighborhood gin mills, neither sacred. But if Scudder begins as a common enough fictional type, he emerges as a likable, melancholy individual.

"The Contract" by J. W. Rhoads is a straight novella, one which suggests Georges Simenon at his non-Maigret best. Under a French system called viagere , a buyer pays a property owner an annuity until the owner dies and then he receives the property. It's a gamble; the longer the owner lives, the more the property costs.

Rhoads' Monsieur Baudoin buys an apartment from the elderly woman who lives directly opposite him. She lives on and on; his money is melting away. He begins to spy on her, merely through binoculars at first, then assuming wild disguises and identities, to get past her concierge and into the apartment. He appears to be cracking up.

There is indeed mischief afoot, deceptions within deceptions, leading to a tasty double-turn ending. Rhoads, said to be an American who has lived in London for years, writes wonderful prose, lean but ample and evocative, and edged with irony. Like Simenon's, in fact.

"Unbalanced Accounts" is a first novel by Kate Gallison, a New Jersey woman who heretofore wrote computer manuals. Her very first sentence ("In March a damp wind blows in Trenton, and it smells of cats") declares that we may be off on a merry ride, and so we are.

The setting is the state bureaucracy, which Gallison seems to know down to the last extended coffee break. Checks are missing from the Bureau of Mental Rehabilitation. A heavy-lidded, slow-witted private detective named Nick Magaracz, disguised as an accountant, is installed to solve the mystery, which grows.

Who done it is hard to remember, and harder to care about; getting there, amid the minutiae of bureaucratic life, nicely satirized, is all the fun.

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