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BLOODY SUNDAY

A Dectective for the Sacramento Delta

March 13, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The Sacramento Delta country, which seems underused in fiction but was the setting for Joan Didion's fine first novel "Run River" in 1963, becomes a well-evoked and dramatically atmospheric background for Marcia Muller's mystery thriller, Eye of the Storm.

Muller's heroine, Sharon McCone, a private investigator for a San Francisco law firm, visits an island in the delta where her sister and brother-in-law are trying to convert an old mansion into a bed-and-breakfast. Everything is going malevolently and then murderously wrong. A devastating storm maroons the party (a large and vivid cast they are), and the villain nearly eliminates McCone in the flood waters.

The structure is traditional, even classic, the denouement surprising but logical and satisfactory. The strengths of the book are Muller's evident and fond familiarity with the delta country and her skill at inventing and describing bold action. Nothing armchair about the detecting here.

The burnt-out cop or private eye--disillusioned, living in wretched quarters and flirting with the DT's--has become a detective fiction cliche. But there is life in the old form yet as Thomas H. Cook proves in his Atlanta-set mystery Sacrificial Ground.

It begins, glumly enough, with Frank Clemons, a homicide detective, stumbling numb-drunk from a lower-depths saloon and getting mercilessly mugged by three punks. (You await a payoff at the end but, quite significantly, there isn't one.) Clemons has hit bottom; there's no place to go but up, as someone once remarked, and he pulls himself together, exploring the murder of a beautiful young girl.

This is a police procedural, and Clemons' patient probings of the dead girl's hidden life, have a you-are-there believability. But more interesting still is the charting of Clemons' involvement with the victim's surviving sister. The resurrection of his pride and confidence is warming but unsentimentally stated.

The mystery has a solution, which is tricky and almost incidental by the time it is arrived at. The mysteries of character are the real matters at issue in Cook's admirable story, which he tells in often poetically elegant prose.

Another nearly burnt-out detective surfaces in Jack Early's Donato and Daughter. Donato's wife is about to leave him; he mourns the apparent suicide of an addict son who was also a cop; he is barely on speaking terms with his daughter. She is a lieutenant of homicide in the grimy Manhattan precinct where he is a sergeant, serving a kind of exile for past misdeeds. But father and daughter are partnered in the search for yet another serial killer, this one who concentrates on nuns.

Early gets the feel of New York, the villages within it and the police just right. But he seems undecided whether his story is about the Donato family or about the case, whose villain is too picture-perfectly psychotic to be quite convincing.

The Donatos themselves are sympathetic although not always compelling, but Lt. Dina Donato is an angry and persuasive symbol of the sexism a ranking woman faces in the NYPD as elsewhere. You are left with admiration for Early's valiant try at giving a thriller a deeper dimension.

Detective heroes have been everything from dilettante aristocrats to village spinsters to professors (in quantity). But, if we except Nero Wolfe's orchid-growing, none has been a professional landscape gardener. But John Sherwood's Celia Grant is, and flowers figure prominently in his plots and her sleuthings. In Flowers of Evil, an arrogantly unpleasant British businessman begins to do bizarre things, including getting fresh with Princess Di at a royal visitation. It turns out that we are what we inadvertently eat.

This is a tidy, clever, English country village mystery in a tradition at least as old as Agatha Christie. There are two murders and a shoot-out, but after the blood and gore elsewhere, it seems almost tranquil, a botanical blessing.

The Black House is a collection of stories by Patricia Highsmith, the Texas-born author long a resident in Europe. Like Ruth Rendell, she keeps a very, very cold eye on the world. Her protagonists are apt to be as amoral as other writers' villains.

She is at her most characteristically cynical in "Not One of Us" in which a circle of his friends conspire in the most subtle ways to drive a decent but boring fellow named Quasthoff to suicide.

In the title story, murder is done by some local chaps simply to preserve the myths they have created for themselves about a deserted house in an Upstate New York village.

In "Old Folks at Home," a man and his wife kindly decide to house an elderly couple from an overcrowded retirement home nearby. The consequences are disastrous and morbidly funny, and you would expect nothing less from Miss Highsmith. Weird, but not too weird.

EYE OF THE STORM by Marcia Muller (Mysterious Press: $15.95; 244 pp.) SACRIFICIAL GROUND by Thomas H. Cook (G.P. Putnam's Sons: $16.95; 270 pp.) DOUBLE BANG by Heywood Gould (Simon & Schuster: $16.95; 240 pp.) DONATO & DAUGHTER by Jack Early (Dutton: $18.95; 342 pp.) FLOWERS OF EVIL by John Sherwood (Scribner's: $14.95; 206 pp.) THE BLACK HOUSE by Patricia Highsmith (Mysterious Press: $15.95, 258 pp.)

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