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Crime Wave: Three Novelists and a Genre : Books: It's no mystery what these local writers--and their heroes--have been up to. Summer's a perfect time for sleuthing.

July 26, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two of Orange County's premiere fictional crime solvers--Maxine O'Callaghan's Delilah West and Noreen Ayres' Smokey Brandon--are back in action this summer. And if British mysteries are your cup of tea, Elizabeth George also has served up another go-round with her New Scotland Yard detective inspector Thomas Lynley.

Let's begin with the aristocratic Lynley and his proletarian partner, Detective Sgt. Barbara Havers.

In "Playing for the Ashes" (Bantam; $21.95), the Huntington Beach author's seventh British crime novel, the mismatched duo are called in to investigate the asphyxiation death of England's top cricket player in a fire in a picturesque 15th-Century cottage.

As is George's modus operandi, however, that's just the starting point for weaving what Booklist has called one of her "rich, colorful, mesmerizing, multifaceted stories that combine an absorbing mystery with provocative insights into her characters' innermost thoughts and emotions."

Just back from her latest trip to England, George was greeted with news from her publisher that "Playing for the Ashes" will hit the prestigious New York Times hardcover bestseller list July 31--at the No. 14 spot--after only two weeks in release.

The paperback version of George's 1993 national bestseller, "Missing Joseph," made it to the New York Times paperback bestseller list in May, and this is her first time on the paper's hardback list.

"It's very exciting for me," George said. "The list had been faxed by my publisher; I looked at it and sort of did a double take."

George also returned home to "a bunch of phone messages" notifying her that "Playing for the Ashes" is on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, as well as those in the Wall Street Journal and a handful of other newspapers.

Bantam, which initially printed 80,000 copies of the novel, has gone back to press, turning out an additional 20,000 copies.

George, who left Sunday on a two-week, eight-city book promotion tour, spent the past two weeks in England, where she and her husband, Ira Toibin, went flat-hunting in Kensington, her favorite part of London. George said she has no intention of moving to England, adding they are looking only for a part-time home.

The former El Toro High School English teacher took her annual research trip to England in January for the novel she's working on, "In the Presence of the Enemy." Her manuscript isn't due in to Bantam until September, 1995. George said she asked for the later due date.

"The books are getting much more complicated, moving farther away from what would be called the category mystery," she said. "Because of that it takes longer for me to write them than it did initially."

The growing complexity of her novels has added considerably to their length. At 624 pages, "Playing for the Ashes" is more than 150 pages longer than her previous book and more than twice as long as her 1988 debut novel, "A Great Deliverance."

Part of the reason for its length, she explained, is that "Playing for the Ashes" is actually two novels that she wrote separately and then wove together. "One story covers 32 years, and the other one covers nine days," said George, who plans to continue writing longer books.

"What I've always tried to do is approach this particular type of novel differently every time," she said. "If you're going to try to do something like that you can't have your editor say to you, 'Crank out 500 pages, please.' It just doesn't work that way."

*

In the new Delilah West caper, "Trade Off" (St. Martin's Press; $19.95), Maxine O'Callaghan's tough and savvy Santa Ana private eye is hired by a wealthy Orange County lighting manufacturer to find his runaway teen-age daughter.

It sounds like a routine case until West discovers a female corpse in her client's next-door-neighbor's Nellie Gale back yard: The body of an upscale real estate agent who was known to have been cozy with the missing girl's sleazy boyfriend who, it turns out, is also AWOL.

"Trade Off"--the fifth title in O'Callaghan's Delilah West series--is praised by Publishers Weekly for its "brisk characterization and smooth plotting" and by Booklist, which places it in the "must-read" category, for painting "a vivid picture of Southern California living."

But there's more Delilah West news. As the Mission Viejo author says, "this is a big year for Delilah."

A paperback reprint of the fourth book in the series, "Set Up" (originally published in 1991), is now out from Worldwide ($3.99), and a short story featuring Delilah appears in "Deadly Allies II" (Doubleday, $18.95), a mystery anthology from Sisters in Crime and Private Eye Writers of America.

And, O'Callaghan said, "we haven't nailed it down, but we are negotiating a TV option right now, too" for either a Delilah West movie or series.

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