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CRIMINAL PURSUITS

Murder, He Wrote

December 15, 1996|DICK LOCHTE

BLOODHOUNDS By Peter Lovesey; Mysterious Press: 368 pp., $22

WORST CASE SCENARIO By Michael Bowen; Crown: 210 pp., $24

MY GAL SUNDAY By Mary Higgins Clark; Simon & Schuster: 244 pp., $23

HATCHET JOB By Harold Adams; Walker and Co.: 153 pp., $19.95

*

The locked-room murder, a familiar element during the detective story's golden era, is as rare these days as Raymond Chandler's fat postman. That's why it's such a surprise to find two of them in this month's book bag. The first comes courtesy of Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds, an elegant procedural featuring British detective Peter Diamond who, after some sleuthing on his own, has just rejoined the Bath Police Department. Lovesey is a playful author who obviously had a fine old time lumbering the very contemporary Diamond with cases--the theft of a rare stamp from a museum and a corpse discovered in a sealed houseboat--more appropriate to the puzzle novels John Dickson Carr and others concocted some five or six decades ago.

But his fun, and the reader's, doesn't stop there. The book's title refers to a group of avid mystery fans who meet to discuss their favorite authors. Just as did their real-life counterparts, they argue the merits of cozies over hard-boiled, the Brits over the Americans, Brother Cadfael over the cops of James Ellroy. They also are forced to endure the self-designated "intellectual" who insists, meeting after meeting, that Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" is the only mystery worth discussing.

When one of them is murdered--surprisingly, it's the fan of Ellroy, not Eco--the others come under the scrutiny of Diamond, who's also trying to ferret out the pilferer of the rare stamp. And it's his witty way of solving the twin crimes while simultaneously getting the better of a particularly obnoxious fellow policeman that gives this mystery a special distinction that "bloodhounds" of both classic and modern mystery should thoroughly enjoy.

The other locked-room murder takes place in a West Virginia hotel in the midst of the Contemporary Policy Dynamics Conference. The conference, according to Michael Bowen's Worst Case Scenario, an event that draws Washington folk "looking for the usual things"--a job, money, information, contacts and a piece of paper that could lead to a political scandal to top even Watergate. The victim is a young woman in possession of the paper. The suspects include a presidential hopeful, a power broker, a respected research scientist and assorted other D.C. denizens. The author's series hero, retired Foreign Service veteran Richard Michaelson, is drawn into the murder investigation by the woman's fiance, a blundering hard-sell super-salesman who is not above suspicion.

Bowen's locked room is not quite as ingenious a creation as Lovesey's, but it will do. And he has added yet another prop from the olden days--a coded message that might have perplexed Sir Henry Merrivale and Ellery Queen working in tandem. The dust jacket suggests that Bowen is a mixture of Agatha Christie and Joe Klein. He does have a knack for tricky plotting. And his knowledge of the way things work in the nation's capital is impressive, especially since he does not seem to be an insider. One of the snottier characters quips, "If you don't know [the news] before it's on CNN, you might as well be a lawyer in Milwaukee."

That's what Bowen is--a lawyer in Milwaukee. And in this instance he seems to be overcompensating for it. His dialogue is frequently witty ("Deborah Moodie has become the civil service equivalent of Kansas City: She's gone about as far as she can go"), but there's too much of it. Too much insider lingo also. Did you know that "carrying the football" refers to following the president with a briefcase filled with nuclear launch codes? Instead of being able to go with the flow of the story, the reader (or at least this reader) has to strain to keep up with, and possibly translate, the fast-paced patter. Still, Bowen seems to have the real stuff. He's funny and cynical and is capable of conjuring up a credible scenario. If he can just relax a little, he may even become the logical successor to the late Ross Thomas, the absolute master when it came to delineating the rascals and rogues and ruffians who rule the Beltway.

With just about everyone agreeing that the short story is all but toes up, I'm not sure how I feel about the alchemy that has turned Mary Higgins Clark's slight tales into gold. How much does she get for a book these days--$4 million, $9 million, $10 million? Whatever, since publishers have little in common with Santa Claus, even at Christmas, I'm sure the tomes are worth every penny. Still, her new book, My Gal Sunday, consists of just four short stories, which breaks down to a per-item price tag that should make the Guinness folks sit up and take notice. This is good news for short-story writers. But, even with the knowledge that the collection has found a niche way up on the bestseller lists, I wonder if it's such good news for readers.

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