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The Rules of Life by Fay Weldon (Harper & Row: $10.95; 80 pp.) : Heartstones by Ruth Rendell (Harper & Row: $10.95; 80 pp.) : Call for the Dead by John Le Carre (Hill: $9.95; 166 pp.) : A Murder of Quality by John Le Carre (Hill: $9.95; 166 pp.)

June 28, 1987|Ross Thomas | Thomas' new novel, "Out on the Rim," will be published in the fall by The Mysterious Press

British novelists still seem to retain their virtual monopoly of murder mysteries and detective stories that take place in particularly genteel settings and are called "cozies" because there is something so reassuringly familiar and repetitive about most of them.

In the classic cozy, some sort of crime takes place, frequently a murder, often in the English countryside. An outside investigator, either amateur or professional, is lugged in by the author willy-nilly to help the well-meaning but understaffed or incompetent local constabulary with its inquiries.

Likely suspects abound. Red herrings are dragged hither and yon. Obvious and not so obvious clues are carefully planted. Everything eventually points at Mr. X until the sleuth, using brilliant if occasionally incomprehensible logic, exposes the real culprit as none other than that far less likely suspect, the charming Mrs. Y, thus allowing a reader to close the book with the satisfied feeling of time well-wasted and esoteric knowledge of South American poisons or 14th-Century armor painlessly acquired.

There are of course writers who can take bits and pieces of the cozy formula, discard the rest, and create novels that offer not only intricate plots but also stylish writing and interesting characterization. But all too frequently in cozies, characterization and style are sacrificed to the rigors of plotting.

However, two experienced British authors, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendell, offer a pair of very short novels (or very long short stories) that can be warmly recommended. Weldon's "The Rules of Life" doesn't even pretend to be a cozy but rather is a satiric fantasy that breaks a cardinal rule of fiction by starting at the end of her principal character's life and working backward. Rendell's "Heartstones," set almost within the traditional confines of the vicar's garden, nicely stands the cozy formula on its head.

There are also two other British novels, published more than 25 years ago and recently re-issued, that deserve either discovery or re-examination. "Call for the Dead" and "A Murder of Quality" were written when John Le Carre, the pseudonym of David Cornwell, was quite young, not more than 29 or 30. Both are far above average and notable for having introduced that now famous British spy, Mr. George Smiley.

When Le Carre created Smiley, he chose to make the short, fat and chronically rumpled secret agent both a cuckold and a scholar of obscure 17th-Century German poetry who, even then, more than a quarter century ago, was well into middle-age and (since he joined the British secret service in 1928) must now be approaching 80.

To compensate--and in view of the retiring Smiley's general unprepossessiveness there would need to be considerable compensation--Le Carre also endowed him with a curiously shy charm and an absolutely brilliant mind. It may be that

Smiley, as Le Carre himself has hinted, was intended as a fictional counteractant to the excesses of the late Ian Fleming's glittering and bibulous James Bond. If so, Le Carre succeeded admirably.

After reading or re-reading these first two novels, it's obvious that the rich and occasionally ripe style that Le Carre would use in his subsequent books was already well-formed. What is passing curious is that he may not yet have been sure whether he wanted to use this style to write spy novels or murder mysteries--or both.

His first novel, "Call for the Dead," is a precursor of most of the espionage novels that would follow, particularly those involving the redoubtable Smiley who appears only briefly in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" but is a principal character in "The Honorable Schoolboy," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People."

In "Call for the Dead," Smiley, still with the secret service, conducts an amicable interrogation of a minor Foreign Office official. It's a loyalty check of sorts, a routine matter that he dismisses from his mind until the minor official commits suicide, leaving behind a note accusing Smiley of harassment.

A semi-official cover-up follows: Smiley resigns from the service in disgust and sets off on his own to find out what really caused the death of the minor official. This starts him down a trail that leads back to his own spying days in Germany both before and during the World War II. Smiley neatly solves the puzzle, of course, and Le Carre thriftily recycles both him and an East German agent called Mundt into his third novel, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," which is the one that made the author's reputation.

In "Call for the Dead," Smiley is part homicide detective and part secret agent. But in the second novel, "A Murder of Quality," he steps squarely into the role of the classic cozy's outside investigator who helps the local bobbies with their inquiries into the grisly murder of the wife of a man who teaches at a famous public school.

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