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Criminal Pursuits

March 20, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Authors of very good first mysteries become their own hardest acts to follow. Abigail Padgett's "Child of Silence" last year was a very fine debut indeed. It introduced Bo Bradley, a San Diego social service worker assigned to child-abuse cases. Padgett's second book, STRAWGIRL (Mysterious Press: $18.95, 245 pp.), confronts her with the rape-murder of a small girl, a ghastly crime with Satanist overtones.

The new novel, like the first, is an engrossing work--sensitive, colorfully populated and carrying the authority of an author who knows the territory, the work, the subtleties of the splayed psyche and such useful side colorations as Indian legend.

Bradley as protagonist is doubly interesting because she suffers from manic-depression and, along with the stresses of the case, must fight to keep her balance without the dulling-out of drugs. Padgett, who was a court investigator in San Diego and is now an advocate for the mentally ill, has been exposed to manic-depression in a family member.

An early suspect (boy friend of the victim's mother) is arrested. But it's quickly clear to the reader, more slowly to Bradley, that there's a real and clever weirdo in the vicinity. The story's rising tension is to identify him and free the innocent.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 12, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 15 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The author of the comic mystery "Murder in a Minor Key," reviewed in the March 20 Criminal Pursuits column, was not David Grossman, but D.A. Crossman.

The supporting cast includes Bradley's hateful female boss, plus a pathetic but helpful hermit, the victim's surviving sister and the remarkable woman who runs a commune across the country deep in the Adirondacks.

Along with its virtues of an implicit concern for society's losers and its presumption of enduring values, Padgett's is also as thrilling as thrillers get.

In his highly unusual MIRROR MAZE (Villard Books: $21; 338 pp.), William Bayer acknowledges his debt to the dazzling, dazing house of mirrors finale in Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai," with its shootout amid infinitely repeating images of Rita Hayworth.

Bayer's detective, Frank Janek, checking out the murder of a visiting businessman in a New York hotel, is led at last to a ravishingly beautiful woman who lives, hermit-like and deeply disturbed, above a mirror maze her father built on a now-abandoned carnival site in the New Jersey flatlands. (It may be the most forbidding location since the House of Usher.)

The woman, Gelsey, forays out to pick up males in posh hotels, drug them, rob them and leave sexually humiliating messages (in mirror writing) on their chests. Murder is not customarily part of the action but the victim, in town on a criminal errand, is indubitably defunct.

Bayer's novel is refreshingly offbeat, but not only in its setting. The whodunit and whydunit of the crime are really used only as means to decipher the mind and the past of Gelsey, haunted as she is by childhood memories of a maze-dwelling monster. A bizarre but ultimately poignant work.

The prize for the year's best first private-eye novel has introduced a succession of good new authors. The latest is E. C. Ayres, whose HOUR OF THE MANATEE (St. Martin's Press: $21.95, 296 pp.) is set on Florida's Gulf Coast, which is beginning to match Southern California eye for eye.

Ayres' Tony Lowell is a semi-dropout and loner who does a little investigating, teaches a little photography at the local college and does a lot of work restoring a wrecked boat he rescued. An elderly woman, just out of an asylum, wants him to investigate a rich man's drowning several years before.

She's killed before he collects his retainer; more killings follow. Somebody wants to let sleeping corpses lie. An unfriendly and suspicious policewoman becomes friendly; two hostile federal agents stay hostile. A judge and a senator probably know more than they'll say.

It's not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but Lowell is an attractive figure; events move swiftly and Lowell is an attractive protagonist, earnest but not solemn and blissfully innocent of forced wisecracks.

Neil Albert is working his through the calendar as Sue Grafton is through the alphabet. "The January Corpse" and "February Trouble" have begotten BURNING MARCH (Dutton: $18.95; 244 pp.), featuring a disbarred Philadelphia lawyer named Dave Garrett. (He took the bar exam in his wife's name but she split anyway.)

His old firm hires him to check out the death by fire of Miss Emily, its longtime bookkeeper. She had called Garrett to say she was on to something, but was silenced before he got to her. The something includes a palace coup, skeletons in the closet and fraud in unexpected quarters.

Albert's book is a tidy, non-police procedural, leading to a quite unexpected and melancholy end.

In MURDER IN A MINOR KEY (Carroll & Graf: $18.95, 224 pp.) , David A. Grossman introduces an endearing figure, an absent-minded composer named Albert, whose brain so teems with hemidemisemiquavers that ordinary reality blurs into incomprehensibility. He appears to live on sardines, peanut butter, Ding Dongs and beer.

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