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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Mysteries

October 04, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Usually while reading Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries, I am struck by how little humanity has changed in a hundred years. But her latest William Monk novel, "A Breach of Promise" (Fawcett Columbine, 384 pages, $25), knocked me for a loop.

Barrister Oliver Rathbone must defend Killian Melville, a talented young architect being sued for refusing to marry his alleged fiancee, Zillah Lambert, a charming and beautiful heiress. It is inconceivable that a man could face financial, professional and social ruin for changing his mind about a betrothal, but, as Perry explains it, in a society where appearance is everything, if a man breaks off an engagement to marry (or seems to), people will raise questions as to the lady's morals. . . .

When Melville refuses to give Rathbone a reason for his actions, Rathbone appeals to his partners in crime: detective Monk and feisty private-duty nurse Hester Latterly, who is loved by both men. Unfortunately, before they can ferret out the truth, the trial comes to a premature and tragic halt. But not to worry. No one weaves plot and subplots as seamlessly as Perry, and even a closed case has a funny way of refusing to go away.

Refreshingly, the surly and distant Monk appears to have had a personality transplant since the last book, though Hester, ministering to a soldier who was disfigured in the Indian Massacre, is strangely subdued. Though I would have liked to have seen a final confrontation with the villain, most fans will be delighted by the long-awaited romantic denouement, which brought tears to my eyes.

*

Cheaper than a trip to Santa Fe and almost as atmospheric is Tony Hillerman's "The First Eagle" (Harper Collins, 278 pages, $25). Acting Lt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police catches Robert Jano, a Hopi eagle poacher, standing over the slain body of one of Chee's fellow officers. Chee believes he has a slam-dunk case, and the feds are prepared to send Jano to the gas chamber. Enter Chee's on-again, off-again fiancee, lawyer Janet Pete, who is defending Jano, and Chee's mentor, the recently retired Joe Leaphorn, now working as a private investigator.

Leaphorn has been hired to track down Cathy Pollard, a biologist who coincidentally (and Leaphorn doesn't believe in coincidences) disappeared from the same place--and on the same day--that the Navajo cop was murdered. Both Pete and Leaphorn suspect that Chee has the wrong man. In the course of their investigation, Chee and Leaphorn get a crash course in bubonic plague-carrying fleas and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is interesting up to a point, but I wished the author had spent more time describing Navajo customs, such as the hunting song you have to sing in which you tell a deer or an eagle that you respect it before you kill it. On the other hand, Hillerman breathes so much life into the relationship between Leaphorn and his professor friend Louisa, and Chee's angst over the beautiful Janet, that you feel like you are in the back seat with them double-dating. I guessed the killer straight away, but the book is a pleasure.

*

Noah Hawley's first novel, "A Conspiracy of Tall Men" (Harmony Books, 295 pages, $23), has a clever premise, a cast of singular kooks and almost hypnotic nervous energy. Linus Owen, a professor at a small college in Northern California, teaches courses on JFK conspiracies and hangs out with cutting-edge anarchists. He shares a comfortable home overlooking the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Claudia, a beautiful advertising executive. They've had a few problems, but Linus believes that Claudia is in Chicago visiting her mother. Then he suddenly receives a visit from two FBI agents in brown suits who inform him that his wife was on a plane to Brazil that crashed, the result of a terrorist bomb.

According to the FBI, her ticket was paid for by her client and lover, Jeffrey Holden, a pharmaceutical executive. Linus is devastated, but not so devastated that he trusts the word of a government agency. With the help of his fellow conspiracy theorists Roy and Ed and an underground network of paranoids and government agents who make the Unabomber seem sane, Linus unravels a plot even more bizarre than a year's worth of "The X-Files." The clandestine ranting wears thin, but what kept me going were sly observations like, "Los Angeles is a city that appears to have been built to satisfy somebody's desire for a cigarette."

*

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

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