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The Swan Song of Inspector Morse

March 12, 2000|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lately, mystery writers are more prolific than fruit flies, and each day brings five or six Jiffy mailers to my door filled with whodunits. It's hard to decide what to review. Granted, some choices are automatic: a favorite author's latest; a colleague's recommendation. But other choices are more capricious.

In the case of Colin Dexter's "The Remorseful Day" (Crown Publishers, $24, 320 pages), the subtitle grabbed me--"The Final Inspector Morse Novel." How was Dexter going to finish off the gruff, Oxford-based, Glenfiddich-quaffing, hyper-intellectual Morse? I wondered. Not that I was overwrought. A more outlandish, slothful sleuth would be hard to find in the entire genre.

But as fans of Morse's 12 previous adventures and the spinoff television version that has run on PBS since 1988 are well aware, the curmudgeonly Morse gets under your skin. He's terrifyingly bright, and his relationships with others shed more light on the human condition than group therapy. Of Morse's superior, "the quirkily contradictory" Chief Supt. Strange, the author slyly observes: "It is also possible for persons to be friends without being friendly toward each other."

For his final go-round, Strange asks Morse to reopen the unsolved murder case of a nurse found handcuffed and battered the year before. Morse is strangely reluctant, but his plucky, long-suffering sidekick, Sgt. Lewis, resolves to solve the case without him. (As if. . . .) The plot is flamboyantly clever; even the most minor characters are bizarre and intriguing. Long after his swan song, Morse will be missed.

*

Having had more than my share of visitors of late, I was drawn to Barbara Seranella's "Unwanted Company" (Harper Collins, $24, 286 pages). I expected a light-hearted cozy, but instead was sucked into a seedy page turner set in oh-too-realistic Los Angeles at the time of the 1984 Olympics. I didn't appreciate having so many skanky characters living in my Venice neighborhood--even in fiction--though I can't quibble with her description. Seranella's heroine "drove through Venice noting the abundance of liquor stores," the author notes. "Every corner seemed to have a building with 'wine and spirits' painted on a stuccoed wall."

Munch Mancini, a recovering addict/auto mechanic/limousine chauffeur, has enough quirks on her resume to be welcomed into the Eccentrics' Hall of Fame. An adoptive mother (sort of), she just started a limousine service--with one silver Cadillac--and is desperately trying to keep the business afloat. Just her luck, a customer in the midst of what Munch recognizes as "incomprehensible demoralization," offers her a week's work, cash up front. "She almost didn't want to take his money. But, hey, they'd made a deal."

Munch, who seems to be as good a judge of character as the producers of "Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire?," hires her friend Ellen (an addict, drunk and former prostitute fresh out of prison) as a chauffeur. "Ellen was good at anything that involves lying," Munch noted. So why is she surprised when the charismatic Ellen and the Caddy go missing, and the police turn up at Munch's door with charges that Ellen witnessed a brutal murder? Fortunately, Det. Mace St. John, another of Munch's coterie of tortured souls, is on the job.

The motives for the murders are a hodgepodge, as is a feeble spy subplot. To the author's credit, "Unwanted Company" is a well-paced, effortless read.

*

By contrast, Margaret Truman's latest, "Murder at the Library of Congress" (Random House, $25, 322 pages), is a classy read, kind of the literary equivalent of the Queen Mary. It doesn't go anywhere, but it stays put with great style and authority. The choppy opening bobs among the theft of a third-rate 19th century Spanish painting in Miami, a gratuitous car crash, a murder in Mexico, and an invitation for attorney-turned-gallery-owner Annabel Reed Smith to write an article for Civilization, the Library of Congress' magazine. Blessedly, Truman soon returns to familiar territory--the nation's capital and its power elite. "You show me a humble senator and I'll make you guest emperor" quips Annabel, who, along with Mackensie Smith, her well-connected law professor husband, are Truman's continuing protagonists. (The "Capital Crimes" series debuted in 1980 but the Smiths weren't introduced until 1989.)

The focus of Annabel's research is the existence or nonexistence of a diary written by Bartolom de Las Casas, supposedly a close friend of Christopher Columbus who accompanied him on three voyages. The erudite author was so stingy with historical details that I wasn't sure if Las Casas was a fictional character. I consulted my husband, a master of the arcane, who casually produced a copy of Las Casas' "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies," written in 1542. Las Casas was born in 1484 and didn't sail to the New World until 1502, so how he kept a secret diary and drew a treasure map about the 1492 voyages is indeterminate.

Back in the Library of Congress, Annabel gets a cubbyhole in the Hispanic Section, conveniently adjacent to Dr. Michele Paul--a surly, heartily disliked scholar who has been searching for the Las Casas diaries for years. Savvy readers will not be surprised that Paul winds up dead, and Annabel--surprise!--finds the corpse. I guessed the killer straight away but remained on board as the plot sailed to its obvious conclusion. The Library of Congress trivia was interesting and the Nick-and-Nora-like banter between the Smiths diverting. I could have used more.

*

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

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