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Bloody Sunday

August 13, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Last year Elizabeth George of Huntington Beach made a rousing debut, critically and commercially, with "The Great Deliverance," which was nominated as best first novel by the Mystery Writers of America.

Her second novel, Payment in Blood, extends her claims to attention as an important new writer in the crime field. She invites comparison with both P. D. James and Ruth Rendell in the psychological interest of her characters and the intricacy and ingenuity of her plotting. If she is not yet quite their equal, she has got off to an uncommonly fast, assured start.

Despite her California placement, her setting is one of those vast country houses in the wintry wilds of Northern Scotland. A company of London players has assembled for read-throughs of a new play that will launch a refurbished West End theater of which their aristocratic host is the impresario.

So far so traditional, and the company has more tangled cross-connections than an ancient switchboard--jealousies, affairs smoldering but not quite dead, careers in need of pepping-up.

The young woman who wrote the play is murdered as she sleeps, a drastic form of criticism. George's sleuth, the aristocratic Thomas Lynley of the Yard, is dispatched to Scotland on highest authority, although the crime is far from his turf. Why, we may well ask? Especially since the woman in Lynley's life (a relationship intense but chaste) was sleeping in the next room, and not alone, either.

Before she is done, George has introduced a long-ago murder disguised as suicide in a village far from Scotland, found a Soviet mole lying in a dishonored grave, and had us witness another quite pitiful murder. But, in an unusual turn of tradition, we have watched the detective in his anguish, as jealousy seriously distorts his handling of the inquiries and his assessment of guilt. (With all else, it is a red herring, tinted green.)

The jealousy complicates his work with his aide, the low-born and anti-aristocratic Sgt. Havers, who suspects (rightly) that Lynley has been put on the case because, as one gent dealing with another, he will unquestionably buy a cover-up story.

The denouement is slightly a disappointment--the pea appearing under a fourth shell you hadn't realized was in the game--but, as is usually true, getting there is all the fun. George keeps her multistoried plot moving along at speed and in immediate scene, as they say, with a minimum of wearying rehashes. She is a spectacular new voice in mystery writing.

Another splendid new arrival is Melodie Johnson Howe, once a Universal contract player ("Coogan's Bluff," "Rabbit, Run," a lot of episodic television), and now a first novelist with The Mother Shadow, which is a book club main selection.

The setting is Los Angeles, where the author lives with her record producer husband. Her heroine is a mid-30ish divorcee named Maggie Hill who is not exactly zooming along on the fast track. She works as a temp and takes a quick assignment with a sad, rich man who has her type up and witness a codicil to his will and then shoots himself.

The codicil disappears but leads her to an imperious, eccentric private investigator named Claire Conrad, who has one of those all-purpose butlers more resourceful than a Swiss army knife. We see that Johnson has set herself up for the literary long haul. Hill and Conrad are great company, full of fast cross- talk and brassier than a band, and they will play for us again.

The plot--sordid family doings that will not stay buried, especially with inheritances at stake--is swift and serviceable, but it is the pairing that gives "The Mother Shadow" its ample charm.

Steve Allen, our resident literary fertility symbol (29 books, 4,000 songs), has now turned his hand to mystery writing. In Murder on the Glitter Box, his sleuth-narrator is of all persons Allen himself.

The fictional Allen is a former nighttime talk-show host, recruited to fill in for Terry Cole, one of his successors, for a couple of weeks, while Cole recuperating at a funny farm near Santa Barbara from an excess of living.

A guest on the show dies from a slug of poisoned vodka, from a stash Cole kept in his desk to speed the commercial breaks along. Was it meant for the guest, Cole or Allen himself? Allen seeks to find out, tangles with the cops at several turns, does a brief turn in jail and is seriously imperiled in a wine closet.

It should surprise no one that "Murder on the Glitter Box" is smoothly written, efficient, amusing and convincing in its details of what the backstage and front stage pressures are like on a show curiously like "The Tonight Show," which Allen established as a genre.

In The King of the Nightcap William Murray continues his adventurous chronicles of Shifty Lou Anderson, the professional magician and compulsive horse player with a side taste for opera.

This time the railbird whom Anderson and his pal Jay Fox sent to cash a major winning ticket disappears with the cash. The lads trail him to Tijuana and the Agua Caliente track.

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