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Wit, Wickedness and a Deadly Windfall

"Mrs. Million" by Pete Hautman; Simon & Schuster; $23; 284 pages

"Mosaic" by John R. Maxim; Avon; $24; 384 pages),


Somewhere in the middle of Pete Hautman's "Mrs. Million" (Simon & Schuster, $23, 284 pages) a character declares, "Our lives take strange turns, do they not?" With the wickedly inventive Hautman at the wheel, you'd better believe it. The title refers to Barbaraannette Quinn, a sweet small-town schoolteacher who has just won $8.9 million in the Minnesota state lottery. Against the advice of family and friends, she makes a television offer of one of those millions for the return of Bobby Quinn, the lout of a husband who abandoned her six years before.

The bounty has its effect on a wide range of characters--including a shy banker who's been in love with Barbaraannette since grade school; her senile, kleptomaniac mother; a homicidal Gen-Xer, late of St. Cloud Correctional, and his lover; and a humanities professor with some rather inhumane ideas. Two beer-swilling local lads whose savings went south with Barbaraannette's hubby are plotting their revenge. And the feckless Bobby Quinn and Flox, his amazingly adaptable current squeeze, have their own scheme hatching.

Hautman mixes his eclectic cast with consequences both bubbly and bloody, while deftly describing broad and subtle aspects of life in his frost-covered home state. For those who like mirth with their murders, "Mrs. Million" is a winner.


John R. Maxim's "Mosaic" (Avon, $24, 384 pages), not to be confused with February's thriller of the same name by Gayle Lynds, has another of those Big Action-Suspense Novel plots that pit an astonishingly noble hero against sinister forces working within our government. In this case, the incredibly evil psychiatrist-villain Norman Zales is conducting experiments on victims of multiple personality disorder, hoping to find those capable of controlling their separate personalities. According to Maxim, "mosaic" is the term for these extraordinary MPD cases, almost all of whom are female. It's the smarmy shrink's plan to turn his mosaics into world-class assassins. Opposing this notion is Maj. Roger Grayson, a military crime-fighting chameleon whose last undercover assignment has left him mentally and physically impaired. What he needs, of course, is the crucible of conflict to make him whole.

Just the first few pages of the novel are enough to establish Maxim's credentials as a pro with an engaging, readable style. In attempting to go for the gold with what editors love to call "a big book," however, he has chosen the wrong high concept. Mosaics may actually exist and it may indeed be possible to mold them into murderers, but there's a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger feel to the whole thing as presented here, enhanced by a what-do-we-do-next-gang? television pilot ending.

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

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