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STYLE : FASHION : DRESSED TO KILL : The New Female Detectives Always Get their Man. And They Do It in Style.

June 04, 1995|David Wharton | David Wharton is a Times staff writer.

Not every gumshoe hits the street with as much style as Iris Thorne. As the heroine of Dianne G. Pugh's books "Cold Call" and "Slow Squeeze.", the former Downtown stockbroker tries to look her best, even with a killer on the loose. But when a thug tears up her condo, she discovers that detective work can be hell on a girl's wardrobe.

The walk-in closet was three feet deep in clothes, shoes, purses, belts, hats, and luggage. Quelle soiree. Her new Anne Klein suit lay on top of the pile. She held her breath as she picked it up. It wasn't slashed. At least they hadn't been sick enough to slash her new Anne Klein.

Traditionally, mystery novels pay more attention to plot twists than designer labels. The genre works best, though, when intrigue combines with sensual description. A handful of recent West Coast mysteries--by women writers, with women protagonists--shows that clothes tell a story all their own.

Irene Kelly, the crime-solving journalist in Jan Burke's "Dear Irene," is the kind of woman who hangs around the house in old pajamas. Meg Lacey, the Vancouver P.I. in Elisabeth Bowers' "No Forwarding Address," realizes that the very next page could bring a chase scene. She dresses accordingly.

I saw the red sign over my butcher's shop, the secondhand store where I buy most of my clothes. ... I prefer clothes that I can move in: wide-cut cotton pants, sweaters, suit jackets when I want to look businesslike.

Perhaps this eye for fashion takes its cue from the Sue Grafton mysteries. Grafton's longtime heroine, Kinsey Millhone, is no clotheshorse. But in the current bestseller " 'K' is for Killer," she knows how to size up a character.

She was on the far side of 40, her outfit of the urban cowgirl sort: boots, faded jeans and a buckskin shirt. She wore enough heavy silver-and-turquoise jewelry to look like she would clank.

There's no time to mince words when foul play is afoot. And any detective worth her salt must make snap judgments. By the end of "Cold Call," Thorne has learned to accessorize with survival in mind.

In the elevator, Iris took the .45 out of her backpack and stuck it into her skirt waistband against the small of her back. She pulled her T-shirt out to cover it. Just in case the geeks turned up again. The metal felt cool against her skin. She pulled at the hem of her mini and wished she'd worn something more commanding. She patted the .45 and played out several deliciously morbid office fantasies in her mind. "Like my new power suit, Drye?"

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