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CRIMINAL PURSUITS : She Saves the World and Can Cook, Too

July 14, 1996|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margot Kaufman's most recent book is "This Damn House: My Subcontract With America" (Villard)

I can understand why Patricia Cornwell has sold a zillion books, the latest of which is Cause of Death. She has a remarkable ability to make smug heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta's every meal seem compelling--"The lasagna was superb because I had drained fresh mozzarella in dishcloths so it did not weep too much during baking." Gifted at evoking time and place, when Cornwell describes a winter's night you reflexively turn up the heat. Most impressive is the way she casually inserts extraordinary details. I now know that you can hold uranium in your bare hand with no ill effects (don't try this at home) and that "the ability to smell cyanide is a sex-linked recessive trait that is inherited by less than 30% of the population." Naturally, Scarpetta, whose curriculum vitae also includes chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, attorney and FBI consultant, is blessed with a superior nose.

Still, Scarpetta has so many attributes that I can't help rooting for her to fail. The mystery opens on New Year's Eve, when a reporter's body is found 30 feet under the icy Elizabeth River. It's freezing out and the Navy's thoughtfully sent a few SEALS to retrieve the corpse, but Scarpetta, a certified diver--surprise!--insists on inspecting the scene of death. She immediately realizes that this reporter hasn't accidentally drowned while hunting for Civil War trinkets and also suspects that the local authorities are trying to hamper her investigation. The plot unfolds at a brisk pace, then suddenly, it drops off the deep end. A supremacist cult with a mad charismatic leader (is there any other kind?) takes over a nuclear power plant and the only person who can save the world is guess who--with help from her moody computer genius/FBI agent niece Lucy and the broody police Capt. Pete Marino.

Take this book with a large grain of salt and Prozac please.

Memo to Jane Haddam. Re: Your new Gregor Demarkian holiday mystery, And One to Die On. Please stop torturing your faithful readers. For 10 books I've waited for former FBI agent Demarkian, the "Armenian American Hercule Poirot," to realize that he is in love with Bennis Hannaford, the madcap Main Line heiress turned best-selling fantasy novelist. At the end of your last book, they were flying off to Paris, albeit with their eccentric Armenian neighbors in tow. (Hannaford moved into Demarkian's building several mysteries ago, but he has yet to get the hint.) Naturally, I assumed that this time, when the couple flew to a rocky island off the coast of Maine ostensibly to celebrate the 100th birthday of silent movie star Tasheba Kent, he'd finally take romantic action, after he solved the inescapable murders. Instead, I got a plot reminiscent of "Sunset Boulevard," too much bad weather and a lackluster denouement. You're a terrific pool-side companion, but until this romance issue gets resolved, I'm only reading you in paperback.

Linda Fairstein has been in charge of the Manhattan district attorney's sex crimes unit for the last 20 years and has prosecuted the high-profile preppie murderer and Central Park jogger rape case. So it's understandable that she hasn't had much spare time to hone her fiction skills. Final Jeopardy, her debut novel, is a self-conscious thriller about Alexandra Cooper, a New York D.A. in charge of a sex crimes unit who wakes up one morning and reads her own obituary in the Post. But the police have made a mistake: It was her movie star friend, Isabella Lascar, who was murdered while staying at the independently wealthy D.A.'s beach home.

"Final Jeopardy" is crammed with tidbits of information that are designed to bring you into the author's world. A reader discovers Cooper's favorite take-out restaurants, the penal code provisions for prosecuting stalkers, the best men's store in New York, the importance of keeping rape victims separated before a line-up and the history of Martha's Vineyard--but while the author's own life is no doubt fascinating, her fictional counterpart's falls flat. Perhaps it is her penchant for dialogue such as, "I have been stabbed in the back--no, in the heart--by that miserable bastard." Or perhaps it's just that I've seen all this on "NYPD Blue."

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