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Criminal Pursuits

May 12, 1996|MARGO KAUFMAN

I'm a fan of "Prime Suspect," the Emmy award-winning series created by Lynda La Plante, even though Detective Inspector Jane Tennyson, played by Helen Mirren, has no people skills and should be sentenced to three months of charm school. Amazingly, Tennyson is a social butterfly compared to Lorraine Page, the grim heroine of La Plante's riveting, if predictable, "Cold Shoulder."

Lieutenant Page has been kicked off the Pasadena police force for emptying six rounds into an innocent kid while drunk on duty. The author describes Page's subsequent downward spiral in such chilling detail that it functions like literary Antabuse: She loses her townhouse, her husband and her daughters, then she's hit by a car while attempting to turn tricks and sent to a rehabilitation center. There, she's befriended by Rosie Hurst--a gutsy recovering alcoholic--Kathy Bates, call your agent--who takes the ungrateful Page home. Almost immediately, Page is attacked by a serial killer, and her inevitable quest for her assailant leads her into a bleak nest of transvestite prostitutes (enough already with the cross-dressers) and ultimately to her salvation.

Elizabeth George is arguably the finest writer working in the mystery genre today, and "In the Presence of the Enemy" is marvelous, though extremely sinister. The 10-year-old out-of-wedlock daughter of Eve Bowen, an unfeeling, ultra-Conservative British politician, has been kidnapped. Her abductor threatens to kill her unless tabloid editor Dennis Luxford publicly admits to having fathered her. Luxford is willing, but Bowen fears the negative publicity will hurt her career. She won't call the police and only reluctantly solicits help. When the inevitable tragedy occurs, enter the fabulously rich and perpetually gloomy New Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his desperately-in-need-of-a-glamour-makeover assistant, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. George's characters are so well drawn and neurotic that I wanted to give them the name of my therapist. Alas, the ending is a bit of a cheat.

It's a safe bet that racing fans will enjoy the action-packed "Dark Horse," by Bill Shoemaker, the most successful jockey in history. Disgraced jockey- restaurant owner Coley Killebrew attempts to unravel an intricate puzzle involving prize racehorses (naturally), Colombian drug czars, the CIA, a presidential candidate and the gorgeous Lea Starbuck, Killebrew's kidnapped fiancee. The vivid descriptions of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are enthralling, but more delightful are the sly descriptions of everyday objects such as "a microwave that could do anything but balance your checkbook."

Sophie Dunbar's "A Bad Hair Day" is an energetic, sensuous romp that is particularly refreshing given the large number of literary detectives in need of Prozac. When she's not ravishing or being ravished by her husband, New Orleans hairdresser Claire Claireborne attempts to untangle who's behind the gruesome but obscenely clever murder of two of her colleagues. The characters are singular and delectable, and Dunbar's depiction of New Orleans and the beauty business are so tantalizing I couldn't decide if I wanted to buy a plane ticket or run out and get my hair cut.

Move over Mary Higgins Clark. Joyce Burditt, writer-producer for television mysteries like "Perry Mason," "Matlock" and "The Father Dowling Mysteries" has added a dollop of whodunit to the classic Hollywood novel and come up with "Buck Naked," a page turner. Licensed sleuth and self described "not-so-tough cookie" Demeter "Dutch" O'Brien is recovering from a broken heart, substance abuse, a dysfunctional relationship with her mother, an over-the-top Beverly Hills shrink and God knows what else. She takes a job as script advisor on a popular television series "Stone, Private Eye." By the end of her first week, Buck, the pseudo-folksy aging star, makes a pass at her; Amy, the troublesome ingenue is murdered and her severed head is delivered to Dutch in a floral hatbox with a warning that she's next. I guessed the killer early on, but the backstage at the studio scenes were divine. Great for a long plane trip.

****

COLD SHOULDER, By Lynda La Plante (Random House: $24; 415 pp.)

IN THE PRESENCE OF THE ENEMY, By Elizabeth George (Bantam: $23.95; 519 pp.)

DARK HORSE, By Bill Shoemaker (Fawcett: $22; 304 pp.)

A BAD HAIR DAY, By Sophie Dunbar (St. Martin's Press: $22.95; 272 pp.)

BUCK NAKED, By Joyce Burditt (Ballantine Books: $21; 265 pp.)

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