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Victorian Venice to Turtle Bay

November 10, 1996|MARGO KAUFMAN

As a rule, historical mysteries aren't my favorites, but last June I picked up "Pentecost Alley," the most recent in Anne Perry's Victorian series starring Thomas Pitt, a gamekeeper's son turned police superintendent, and Charlotte, his well-born wife. I was so beguiled by the lost world of withdrawing rooms, hansom cabs and handsome parlor maids that I refused to return to the 20th century for the next three months. Fortunately for my escapist tendencies, Perry writes two books a year: The riveting "Pentecost Alley" was the 16th Pitt outing and her newest, Weighed in the Balance, is the seventh in a darker series featuring William Monk, an arrogant, angst-ridden, semi-amnesiac private detective. (He lost most of his memory in a carriage accident in the first book but has convenient and dramatic flashbacks.)

Monk solves crimes with the help of Sir Oliver Rathbone, a brilliant barrister, and Hester Latterly, a fiercely moral, pig-headed nurse who learned her profession on the battlefields of the Crimean War, with Florence Nightingale. This time, Sir Oliver agrees to defend the flamboyant Countess Zorah Rostova on a slander charge. The countess has publicly accused Princess Gisela--the Wallis Simpson of her day--of murdering her husband, Prince Friedrich, heir to an obscure German principality who gave up his throne for love.

Monk is dispatched to the Continent to gather evidence among the hedonistic exiled nobility who lost their thrones in the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. I swiftly tired of the lush descriptions of Venice under Austrian occupation and was relieved when Monk returned to London, where the crafty Hester was busy meddling in her latest patient's life. The book improves enormously once Sir Oliver goes to court, and the denouement is unexpected and ingenious.

What sets Harlan Coben above the crowd are wit and wicked nonchalance about jettisoning reality to create an entertaining plot. In Fade Away, Myron Bolitar, his sports agent detective, is placed on an NBA basketball team, the New Jersey Dragons, in order to locate a superstar guard who has disappeared. Granted, 10 years ago, Myron was a first-round draft choice of the Celtics but, alas, suffered a devastating knee injury in a preseason game that ended his career.

Myron has since gone to Harvard Law School, worked undercover for the FBI, solved a couple mysteries and consumed umpteen cases of Yoo-Hoo--a resume that makes a professional comeback, even as a bench-warmer, unlikely.

Still, it didn't bother me that Myron suited up though it did give me pause how little time he actually spent with the team. (Don't they have any away games?) The detective's guise permits the author to be amusing about millionaire players, groupies and fans and also puts Myron in touch with his suppressed feelings about his thwarted career. Coben, the winner of this year's Bouchercon Award for his last paperback, "Drop Shot," is a keen social observer, and Myron's lethal yuppie sidekick, Windsor Horne Lockwood III, is a hoot.

Readers who relished the breakneck pace of Sue Grafton's last Kinsey Millhone mystery, "L Is for Lawless," may be frustrated by the more sedate and introspective sequel, M Is for Malice.

It's January and preternaturally plucky Kinsey is in a funk (this is what happens to a woman who refuses to shop). Her recently discovered first cousin Tasha asks her to track down Guy Malek, the missing black sheep of a wealthy dysfunctional family. His father, gravel czar Bader Malek, has died, and his will divides his estate equally among his four sons. But even if Kinsey can find Guy, his loathsome brothers aren't eager or willing to welcome the prodigal son home.

As always, Grafton's well-crafted plot fits together like a museum reproduction jigsaw, and she's meticulous about minor details (I now look at gravel with new respect). I admire her decision to sacrifice a little action for character development and am relieved that Kinsey has finally stopped cutting her own hair.

Readers may feel that Kinsey's fixation on her long smoldering abandonment issues are a bit of a downer, but I trust she'll snap out of it by the next book. If not, P may be for Prozac.

You can always bet on one thing with Dick Francis. Regardless of whether his hero is a butcher, baker or Web-site maker--or an artist, like Alexander Kinloch, his latest protagonist--within 100 pages he winds up on a racehorse. Yet despite this certainty and other fixtures in the Francis formula, his 35th book, To the Hilt is wonderful, complex and surprisingly moving.

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