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A Mix of Past Terrors and Present Torment

"INSTRUMENTS OF NIGHT." \o7 By Thomas H. Cook (Bantam $23.95, 304 pages)\f7

November 04, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Margo Kaufman's latest novel, "Clara: The Early Years, the Story of the Pug Who Ruled My Life" (Villard), is now in bookstores

Thomas H. Cook's last book, "The Chatham School Affair," won the 1997 Edgar Award for best novel, and his haunting new one, "Instruments of Night," could be a contender.

The aptly named hero, Paul Graves, is the author of a bleak mystery series set in 19th century New York. A modern-day New Yorker, Graves sets his books in the past because it's the only place where he "felt truly safe."

Long ago, his sister Gwen was brutally murdered by a sadistic stranger, and Graves, who has never doubted that one day he will kill himself, lives in a harsh prison of poorly suppressed memories. Then out of the blue, Graves receives an invitation to the Riverwood Colony, a bucolic artists' retreat.

The owner of the property, Allison Davies, asks him to use his imagination to solve the murder of her childhood friend, Faye Harrison, who was killed in 1946. Davies wants to give Harrison's elderly mother closure and suggests that Graves go through the old police files and come up with a plausible fiction that Davies can present as truth. Graves' investigation triggers flashbacks of his own past trauma that threaten his shaky truce with reality.

While Faye's fate seems like a stretch, what keeps the reader enthralled is the juxtaposition of Graves' grim inner world, modern-day and 1940s Riverwood, and Victorian Manhattan. The denouement took me by surprise and disturbed me for days.

"THE STARGAZEY." By Martha Grimes (Henry Holt $25, 354 pages)

Martha Grimes is a marvelously complex and loopy writer and "Stargazey," her 15th Richard Jury mystery, is the literary equivalent of a box of Godiva truffles.

A depressed (isn't he always?) Supt. Jury is riding on a bus down Fulham Road when he notices a luminescent blond in an expensive fur coat leaving the Stargazey pub.

On an impulse he follows her to the gates of Fulham Palace but doesn't go in, an action he regrets when a blond in a sable coat is later found dead in the palace's herb garden in a patch of lavender, according to the caretaker.

Of course, Linda Pink, the precocious 10-year-old who originally found the body, insists it was lying elsewhere. Linda is no more easily dissuaded than Jury, who maintains the corpse is actually not the woman from the bus.

This elegant setup unleashes breathtaking complications that send Jury and his endearingly hypochondriacal partner, Wiggins, in busy little circles trying to make sense of the flamboyant disorder.

To add more spice to the mix, Jury's aristocratic sidekick, Melrose Plant, arrives in London and checks into Borings, a hilarious parody of a stuffy men's club where it takes the stabbing of an elderly art critic to raise a pulse in the geriatric clientele.

If this were a miniseries, every character actor in town would be hounding his agent for work, what with the aging film star, the pair of shady Russians selling all-white paintings called "Siberian Snow Series," and the revolting but riveting Cripps family. No one writes cats or kids better than Grimes, yet her true genius is maintaining a sense of danger and malevolent conspiracy amid the high camp details. The book is wonderful; run out and buy it at once.

"MALICE IN MINIATURE: A Dorothy Martin Mystery." By Jeanne M. Dams (Walker and Co. 240 pages, $22.95)

As a longtime dollhouse enthusiast, I was intrigued by Jeanne M. Dams' latest, "Malice in Miniature." Her intrepid sleuth, Dorothy Martin, is a snoopy Hoosier who moved to the English village of Sherebury after being widowed and swiftly married Alan Nesbitt, the chief constable. In her fourth outing, Martin is galvanized into action when her drunken gardener is accused of stealing a precious Sevres miniature tea set.

Once the property of Marie Antoinette, the wee object now belongs to Sir Mordred, an eccentric nobleman who has turned nearby Brocklesby Hall into a museum of miniatures. Living as we do in the same city as the Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, where it is possible to see intricate replicas of the Vatican and Fontainebleau that are insured for half a million dollars, it seems obvious that theft of such a bagatelle makes for an interesting plot twist.

But while Dams serves up a quick history of Britain and America's more notable dollhouses, she doesn't take advantage of the rather unique opportunities offered by a cache of teensy treasures, and instead falls back on a series of improbable murders heavily larded with not particularly original observations of English weather and driving.

Dorothy and her neighbors are agreeable company, but she would be prudent to stop touting herself as the best amateur sleuth since Miss Marple. The ending is formulaic and comes out of Everest-thin air.

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Feast Your Eyes on This

For more reviews and book information, read Sunday's Book Review. This week:

* Richard Eder tackles Tom Wolfe's new novel, "A Man in Full."

* Eric Zencey digs into three recent books on nature.

* And Carolyn T. Hughes goes the distance with David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali.

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Reading by Author Andrew Sullivan

Author Andrew Sullivan will read from his new book, "Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival," at 7 p.m. Thursday, in the Mark Taper Auditorium of the Central Library at 5th and Flower streets in downtown Los Angeles. The event is free. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025.

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