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Mysteries

'Death' More Knockoff Than Knockout

July 28, 1999|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then after reading "Death du Jour" by Kathy Reichs (Scribner, 379 pages, $25), Patricia Cornwell's head must be swollen larger than a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon.

Reichs, whose first novel, "Deja Dead," was an international bestseller, has concocted a whodunit that is mind-bogglingly derivative. Granted, the mystery universe is populated by more than one sleuth who is a jockey, bounty hunter, reporter, old biddy or aristocrat, but usually the author tries to distinguish the detective from others in his or her genre.

Here, instead of Cornwell's heroine, forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, Reichs gives us forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, who lives not in Virginia, as Scarpetta does, but in nearby North Carolina and sometimes, don't ask me why, in Montreal.

Both doctors have problematic relationships with their sisters and close ones with younger relations (in Scarpetta's case, her moody genius niece, Lucy, and with Brennan, her daughter, Katy, a criminal profiler manque who is a sure bet to fall in love with a serial killer in the next book).

Even though it's a knockoff, "Death du Jour" begins promisingly enough with Temperance in a Montreal graveyard exhuming the remains of Elisabeth Nicolet, a nun who is up for beatification. Temperance's task is to find the body and verify the bones, but from the first push on her flat-edged shovel, her mind is spinning in a zillion directions. And just when the dead nun plot tweaked my fancy, our heroine had to autopsy two gruesomely murdered babies. Before you could say larvae, maggots and puparial casings, Temperance was back in North Carolina on the trail of a dangerous cult leader.

Reichs wastes no opportunity to share her knowledge. If you revel in details like when maggot masses form they can raise the internal temperature of a corpse appreciably, you will be enthralled.

One hopes the author will give her heroine some personality in future books. As it stands now, Temperance has few idiosyncrasies beyond loving her cat, being a former alcoholic and getting along with her ex-husband. What she looks like, I don't know. Even her sex life is a snore. Can you imagine anyone commenting after a romantic encounter, "While the orgasm was overdue and would certainly have been welcome, I suspected the cost was already too high"?

The plot is well thought out, the ending impossible to guess, but save your money for the paperback.

*

By contrast, though in the spirit of Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie's "Kissed a Sad Goodbye" (Bantam, 336 pages, $23.95) is a haunting mystery, starring British detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James.

The novel alternates between two picturesque settings, the refurbished Docklands of east London and a large estate in wartime Surrey. Kincaid and James (both single parents and in the midst of an affair that appears to be in trouble, though they get along fine) are called on the job when a beautiful redheaded corpse with power clothes and Pre-Raphaelite face is discovered in the park.

Kincaid's first instinct is that the body has been artfully arranged, and he ventures that the corpse, who is later identified as Annabelle Hammond, knew her killer. Hammond certainly was not a candidate for Miss Congeniality. Running Hammond's Teas, her family's century-old tea industry, she'd had problematic dealings with her sister, Jo; her former brother-in-law, Martin; her fiance, Reggie; Gordon, a magnetic clarinet player who serenades passersby from a tunnel; real estate magnate Lewis Finch; and a handful of other enigmatic folk.

Most notable about the novel is the cryptic interplay between past and present. During the blitz, the young Lewis is sent to a Surrey estate where he meets tea scion William Hammond, father of Annabelle, who also has been evacuated for his protection. The reader gets to wallow in a 1940s universe of pony cart rides, downed German Junkers, Cook giving you a nice cuppa, and sadistic tutors.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Gemma fights her attraction to the musical busker, Kincaid struggles to create a relationship with his sort-of son, Kit, and the pair labor to understand the nuances of the tea industry, where a taste for tea needs developing, like a taste for wine.

So shrewdly does the author integrate the personal and professional lives of her characters that I was frankly startled when it was time to wrap up the case. I didn't feel the past baggage justified the solution to the present murder, but the climax made sense without it. Moreover, I found Gemma and Kincaid to be excellent company and will order their previous adventures posthaste.

*

Beach Blanket Book: "Murder Shoots the Bull" by Anne George (Avon, 247 pages, $22). The latest in her Agatha Award-winning Southern Sisters series, this novel, set in Birmingham, Ala., features good old girl Patricia Anne and her femme fatale sister, Mary Alice. The characters are so opinionated you half expect them to fire your baby-sitter, and the action so real, you think it's happening next door.

For more reviews, read Book Review

* This Sunday: Bill Littlefield on the "Best American Sports Writing of the Century," Bill Plaschke on Michael Jordan, John Balzar on Hemingway's last novel and Paul Woods on Sister Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever."

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