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CRIMINAL PURSUITS : TWO FOR THE DOUGH, By Janet Evanovich (Scribner: $22; 301 pp.) : REMEMBER ME, IRENE, By Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster: $21; 302 pp.) : TRIAL, By Parnell Hall (Mysterious Press: $21.95; 320 pp.) : DON'T EXPLAIN, By Dallas Murphy (Pocket: $22; 286 pp.)

February 18, 1996|DICK LOCHTE

Last year, Janet Evanovich's wild and woolly "One for the Money" introduced a new heroine for our times, the naive but fiercely determined novice bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Stephanie, who can give Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski lessons in attitude--she is after all, from New Jersey--won the hearts of critics and readers alike with her smart mouth and hard-boiled manner, neither of which quite manage to mask her underlying vulnerability. She returns in the new Two for the Dough, just as outwardly tough and just as self-doubting.

Evanovich's protagonist and her associates, an assortment of richly detailed Jersey denizens, are so engaging that it seems like carping to say that the plot of "Dough" is barely adequate. Stephanie's bailsman cousin, Vinnie, hires her to track down one of his errant clients, a neighborhood psycho who has flown the coop rather than stand trial for a knee-capping incident. The ensuing hunt is really little more than an excuse to show us Stephanie in action--countering her demanding family, dealing with a difficult lover and escaping the clutches of full-blown psychopaths. With her punky duds, pepper spray and even more peppery language, she could be the poster woman for the character-is-more-important-than-story contingent.

Jan Burke is another novelist with a feisty contemporary heroine--but she does not skimp on plot. In Remember Me, Irene, the fourth outing for sharp-witted and resourceful Irene Kelly, the newlywed political reporter for the Las Piernas News Express in California shies away from a homeless man seeking her help only to discover later that he may have been a friend from her college days. Attempting to assuage an industrial-sized sense of guilt, she goes on a hunt for the panhandler and lands right in the middle of a complex conspiracy involving murders, old and new, political malfeasance, scads of money and a gallery of suspicious characters, at least two of them fascinatingly loathsome.

I am happy to report that married life definitely agrees with Irene. She is as clever and determined and appealing as she was when single. And her connubial state has streamlined her narration, allowing her to concentrate on the more vivid and suspenseful aspects of her investigation while hubby, homicide detective Frank Harriman, gathers expository information somewhere off-page. One wonders if easy access to department computers and files may be the reason so many sleuthing women are winding up with sensitive, thoughtful policeman mates. In any case, it works here. "Remember Me, Irene" is a memorable who-done-it, a splendid addition to an excellent new series.

Since mystery novelist Parnell Hall readily acknowledges his fondness for Erle Stanley Gardner, it should come as no surprise that his amusing Stanley Hastings capers are fun-house-mirror versions of the Perry Mason stories. Gardner's basically humorless mysteries concentrate on lawyer Mason, who on occasion uses the services of detective Paul Drake. In Hall's often hilarious novels, the detective, Hastings, is the main attraction, and the lawyer he works for, Richard Rosenberg, far from being a dynamic, high-profile criminal attorney, is a shyster who advertises on TV and specializes in accident cases.

That's been the format for the past 10 entries in the series. But the new one, Trial, strengthens the link to the Mason books. Not only does Rosenberg agree to defend an accused wife-slayer, but Hastings also is at last able to put aside his usual whiplash claim investigations in favor of genuine detective work. His assignment is to interview the six men who were supposedly playing poker with the accused at roughly the same time his wife was being murdered. The interviews go well. But, as is usually the case when the hapless Stanley is involved, things manage to go awry. Hall is a born yarn-spinner. Erle Stanley Gardner would be proud. And maybe just a tad envious.

Dallas Murphy's two previous novels about Artie Deemer and his internationally beloved performing dog, Jellyroll, the canine equivalent of Tom Hanks, are delightful entertainment that smartly mix mirth and murder. But his latest, Don't Explain, is, well, beyond explanation. The plot, what there is of it, finds an unpleasantly sardonic Artie and Jellyroll rushing from Manhattan in an effort to avoid a lunatic celebrity stalker who has threatened to kill the popular pooch. They hike to a nearly inaccessible island off the coast of Maine where nothing much happens until the stalker arrives. The violence that ensues is not only gruesome, it's also described in such an aloof, cynical manner by narrator Artie that one is hard-pressed to imagine what Murphy hoped to achieve with this odd book.

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