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July 12, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | Special to The Times

Anyone wondering--as I was--what Patricia Cornwell does to deserve a million-copy first printing should pick up "Point of Origin," her most engrossing effort in years (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 368 pages, $25.95). Cornwell's heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia in addition to being a lawyer, government consultant and gourmet cook, has a tendency to be insufferably grandiose, but in this outing she is almost sympathetic.

The reader is sucked in from Page One, when Scarpetta receives a threatening letter from her old nemesis Carrie Grethen, a psychopath whom Scarpetta put away with the help of Benton Wesley, a high-ranking FBI profiler.

While pondering Grethen's next move, Scarpetta and her sidekick, police Capt. Pete Marino, investigate a raging fire on a media tycoon's horse farm, which appears to have been set to cover up a murder. Though the author easily could have relied on the bizarre series of similar fires that follow to keep the reader enthralled, she instead moves the story along with a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of interpersonal conflicts between the prickly Scarpetta, Wesley, Marino and Scarpetta's moody genius niece Lucy, with whom Grethen once had a destructive lesbian affair. By the time you get to the gruesome denouement, you're emotionally spent, but satisfied.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Sophie Dunbar's lighthearted, endearingly trashy "Redneck Riviera" (Intrigue Press, 290 pages, $5.50). Because of a publishing snafu, it's the third of Dunbar's "Eclaire" mysteries to be released but sequentially is the second in her series featuring hairdresser/sleuth Claire Claibourne of New Orleans and her no-candidate-for-Viagra husband, Dan.

One of Claire's clients, a former beauty queen with the improbable name of Tinker Bell, invites the couple for a complimentary stay at the Bell Sands Resort, which she owns with her tycoon husband. No sooner do the Claibournes check in than they discover that: Miss Gold Coast, the famous beauty pageant that Tinker sponsors, is underway; the mother of Miss Tampa Tangerine is attempting to sabotage the pageant with the help of a sleazy lawyer; and a hurricane is approaching.

A pack of murderous Southern beauty queens trapped in a hotel during inclement weather is a terrific premise for a cozy and Dunbar is wickedly funny about Southern culture. The plot is somewhat clunky (I identified the killer long before anyone died), and Claire's and Dan's inability to keep their hands off each other wears thin after the seventh or eighth racy interlude. Still, mysteries don't get more fun than this.

Readers in the mood for an old-fashioned English whodunit should be pleased by Peter Lovesey's "Upon a Dark Night" (Mysterious Press, 374 pages, $25.95). Set in picturesque Bath, this sedate novel takes its time getting started. A young woman is found in a hospital parking lot suffering from amnesia. Treated for minor injuries, she is released to a homeless shelter, where a charismatic petty thief tries to help her discover her identity. Meanwhile, on the posh side of town, another young woman plunges off the roof of the Royal Crescent (where Mr. Pickwick of "The Pickwick Papers" took rooms), and in a nearby village an elderly farmer is found with a gunshot wound in his head. The latter two incidents are written off as suicides by the Bath police, but Det. Supt. Peter Diamond--whose blood pressure increases when he has nothing to do--suspects that all the events are linked.

As if amnesia and deceptive suicides weren't sufficient crime fiction cliches, Lovesey confidently tosses buried treasure into the mix, as if to prove his mastery of the genre. The plot has more twists than those crop circles found in the south of England, and Diamond and his colleagues are etched so precisely, I wouldn't be surprised if I could pay them a visit.

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

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