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Sunday Brunch | BOOKSHELF / Mysteries

September 28, 1997|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fictional detectives have a strange attitude about money. It doesn't matter if a sleuth hails from the English school of Independently Wealthy Aristocrats or is cast in the American Scrappy Gumshoe mold: Cash is seldom an issue, unless someone gets killed for it.

Take Jane Whitefield, the blue-eyed, raven-haired heroine of Thomas Perry's spellbinding and unpredictable "Shadow Woman" (Random House, $22, 350 pages). Jane has a job that you never heard about on High School Career Day: She's a "guide," she hides people in trouble, drawing on her Native American heritage.

This time, she orchestrates a daring escape for Pete Hatcher, a Las Vegas casino manager whose suspicious superiors want him dead. Just prior to his stunning disappearance (accomplished with the help of the Miraculous Miranda, a magician), Hatcher asks about Jane's fee. Her answer: "A year from now, maybe two, you'll think about the way your life is. And you'll remember how you felt tonight. And then you'll send me a present."

I hope so, because her overhead with Hatcher is enormous. Believing he's safe, Jane returns home to Deganawida, N.Y., marries Carey, her doctor boyfriend, and gives up her profession. But soon she learns that Hatcher is being pursued by a creepy pair of assassins and she hurries to his aid. She runs through more fake drivers' licenses and credit cards than the Federal Witness Protection Program uses in a year, and purchases numerous plane tickets without ever staying over on a Saturday night for a lower fare. Fortunately, Jane is a singular heroine: tough, ultracautious, willing to climb a glacier and face down a bear. So the presents should keep coming.

Finally, Elizabeth George has married off her brooding blueblood Det. Inspector Thomas Lynley, a.k.a. Lord Asherton. His dowdy, lower-middle-class partner, Sgt. Barbara Havers, takes center stage in the un-put-downable "Deception on His Mind" (Bantam, $24.95, 607 pages).

Still recuperating from injuries suffered in the last book, Havers is ordered to take a holiday. Her 8-year-old Pakistani neighbor, Hadiyyah, announces that she and her father, Taymullah Azhar, are leaving for a seaside town near Essex to handle a family crisis. Coincidentally, Barbara turns on the news and learns that another Pakistani, Haytham Querashi, has been found dead in the same town. Querashi recently immigrated to wed the daughter of a wealthy businessman and the growing Pakistani community is calling it a racially motivated incident.

Barbara follows her neighbors to keep them out of trouble. Does she make a reservation? Does she worry about expenses even though much of her income goes to supporting her senile mother? Ha. The investigation is headed by Barbara's glamorous former classmate, now Det. Chief Inspector Emily Barlow. Havers offers her services (free of charge).

The author has a rare gift for creating hauntingly real characters, most notably Sallah, a beautiful girl struggling to satisfy the demands of two wildly disparate cultures. George, a Californian, gets every detail of English life just right and the result is a superb novel of exquisite depth and nuance.

Scribner's is so confident that you'll like "Off the Face of the Earth" ($22, 286 pages), former New York Times Hollywood correspondent Aljean Harmetz's first novel, that the publisher is offering a money back guarantee. No matter how many takers there are, Harmetz should recoup the loss because, clearly, she has written this riveting thriller with a movie-of-the-week deal in mind.

The plot is straight out of TV Guide: Eight-year-old David Greene with an IQ of 168 runs away from home and is kidnapped from a suburban shopping mall by a creepy psychopath (John Malkovich, call your agent). Drew, his intellectual, control-freak mother, tracks him down with (minimal) help from ace Det. Angus West, an unmemorable, borderline-alcoholic cop with a tragic secret in his past. What saves the book from banality are the author's insightful characterizations and her sharp eye for realistic detail.

*

Margo Kaufman and Dick Lochte will take turns reviewing mysteries every four weeks. Next week: Mary Rourke on books about faith and spirituality.

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