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Mysteries

Adventure, Suspense in Southwest U.S.

April 21, 1999|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are few things more comforting than losing yourself in a mystery, and the current crop is especially escapist. For mesmerizing readability, it's hard to beat "Biting the Moon" (Henry Holt, 301 pages, $25), Martha Grimes' third non-Richard Jury novel.

A precocious teenage girl--the author's affinity for these rivals Titian's for redheads--wakes up alone in a Santa Fe bed and breakfast. She can't remember who she is or how she got there and doesn't believe the proprietor's explanation: She was brought in asleep by her "Daddy." The girl--who will call herself Andi after the nearby Sandia Crest--steals "Daddy's" gun and hikes into the mountains, where she spends the winter in a cabin, freeing trapped animals.

"She tried to put herself in the animals' place, being caught in one of those infernal traps. Fingers caught in a car door, that would be like it."

Andi's outrage over man's inhumanity to animals underscores her stoic acceptance of her own confusion and gradually empowers her to take action. While robbing a Santa Fe pharmacy, she is befriended by Mary Dark Hope, a wealthy, orphaned, preternaturally sensible 13-year-old. (Faithful Grimes readers will recall Mary as the sister of the murder victim from one of Grimes' Richard Jury novels, "Rainbow's End.") Together, the girls decide that the only way to discover Andi's identity is to search for "Daddy."

Imagine Thelma and Louise in training bras careening down the scenic highways of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming (without driver's licenses), shooting rapids, foiling a big game hunt, taking the law into their own hands and you'll get a sense of the breakneck plot.

Without Grimes' gift for eccentricity and place the book would read like a modern Nancy Drew adventure, but you can't help rooting for the pair. The animal-rights subplot gets tiresome--it seems inconceivable that the girls never come upon anyone who has a wholesome relationship with a pet, or why if Andi is such a fanatic she eats chicken fried steak. But quick, buy the book before it gets made into a movie. I suspect you only have a couple weeks.

*

Peter Robinson's "In a Dry Season" (Avon Twilight, 422 pages, $24) is exquisitely complex and atmospheric. (Give the art director who did the book jacket a raise.) A summer drought dries up the Thornfield Reservoir, revealing Hobbs End, an English village that was deliberately flooded at the end of World War II. Det. Chief Insp. Alan Banks, professionally in the doghouse for insubordination and personally, coming out of a post-divorce funk, is called on the scene when a young boy discovers a skeleton in the forgotten hamlet. The remains belong to a young woman who was brutally murdered in the 1940s. Oddly touched, Banks doggedly tracks her killer, with the help of Det. Sgt. Annie Cabbot, a too-blithe-for-the-police-force spirit whose musical tastes run to "Gregorian chants, Don Cherry's 'Eternal Now' and several 'ambient' pieces by Brian Eno."

The ingeniously crafted narrative cuts back and forth between past and present. It's hard to say which is more diverting: the time trip back to wartime Britain, when the U.S. Air Force was "oversexed, overpaid and over here," and women painted their legs with Miner's Liquid Makeup Foundation to imitate nylon stockings? Or the head trip into Banks' ragged psyche as he repairs relations with his alienated friends and family members. With clever sleight of hand, the author sprinkles clues in the flashbacks that keep a reader in suspense until Banks and Cabbot unravel the same information in the present. The climax is a bit of a disappointment, but the characters are first-rate.

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

This Sunday in Book Review:

Does a Los Angeles literature exist? And if so, what are the factors that define it? Twenty-nine local authors answer these and other questions while providing a list of the essential L.A. novels.

Plus, Michael Korda remembers a visit he made to Will and Ariel Durant, and Carlos Fuentes and Milan Kundera wish each other happy 70th birthday.

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