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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Book Shelf

Mysteries

April 19, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Well, the good news is that Sue Grafton's irreverent, anti-fashion detective Kinsey Millhone is back on the job in "N Is for Noose" (Henry Holt). The bad news is that the usually spunky and assertive Kinsey is a little blue. Driving back home to Santa Theresa, Calif., after spending a couple of weeks in Nevada nursing her detective friend Dietz back to health, Kinsey stops in the creepy Sierra town of Nota Lake, population 2,356.

A former Dietz client, the whiny and cloying Selma Newquist, asks Kinsey to find out why Selma's late husband, Tom, a cop who recently dropped dead of a heart attack, was troubled and withdrawn in the weeks before he died.

"I don't want to sound rude," Kinsey says, "but does it really make any difference? Whatever it was, it's too late to change, isn't it?" Kinsey is in no mood to take on "a job that was not only vague but felt hopeless as well," but she acquiesces. She even lets Selma put her up in a motel that Norman Bates would be scared to visit, the too-rustic Nota Lake Cabins.

Kinsey doggedly goes through Tom's papers, notes and phone bills, pries information out of his tight-lipped colleagues and endures harassment from the eccentric, small-minded residents of the town until, against all odds, she digs up a tiny clue that Tom was working on an unsolved double homicide. Before she can act on it, she is brutally attacked. (This is why I am not a detective; I can't imagine suffering this much for a measly $1,500 retainer.)

As always, the greatest joys of Grafton's books are Kinsey's spot on wit (describing a handshake she observes, "It was like having a half-pound of cooked linguine placed in your palm for safekeeping") and her shrewd social observations ("I passed one of those plain motel-style brown-and-yellow churches that made you suspect it would be depressing to believe whatever these people believed").

The ending is a bit convoluted, and Kinsey seems ready for a spa vacation, but Grafton's millions of fans will not be disappointed.

*

My discovery of the month is "Once Too Often," Dorothy Simpson's deftly plotted, exquisitely nuanced English village cozy starring Inspector Luke Thanet (Scribner's).

In this, his 14th outing, the endearing Thanet is struggling to come to terms with his only daughter's upcoming wedding when a local reporter, Jessica Dander, is found dead at the foot of her own staircase. (Is it my imagination, or have staircases replaced serial killers of late?)

Thanet and his partner, Det. Sgt. Mike Lineham, have reason to suspect that the death was not an accident given that Dander's front door was open, someone called the police and then disappeared before they arrived, and the angry, dissatisfied victim had alienated her browbeaten husband and her rich but disenchanted lover. In a quiet meticulous way, Thanet and Lineham unravel a tangled skein of dysfunctional relationships to gain a deeper understanding of the unsympathetic Dander.

I especially enjoyed the author's portrayal of life in a village, where knowledge is gleaned because a detective's wife went to school with the victim and neighbors sheepishly confess to peeping over the wall separating their properties.

"You just can't avoid overhearing," Thanet gallantly assures them.

*

Anglophiles will also enjoy "Standing in the Shadows," by Michelle Spring (Ballantine Books). The suspenseful thriller is set in Cambridge and features private investigator Laura Principal.

Two years before, Daryll Flatt, an 11-year-old boy, confessed to killing his foster mother by stoning her from his treehouse. Daryll's older brother, Howard, hires Principal, not to solve the crime but, rather, to find out why Daryll did it.

The question of what propels a child to commit a heinous crime is an intriguing one, and Principal tenaciously peels through layers of rationalizations by social workers, teachers, police officers and family members before arriving at the truly startling conclusion.

The sleuth was too bland for my taste--apart from a fondness for rowing, she seems to have no quirks--and the book would have been much richer had the author not assumed a reader was familiar with her earlier works and provided more details.

*

The Times reviews mystery books every other Sunday. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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