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Botswana the Backdrop for Lady Sleuth's Adventures


Looking for something completely different in mystery fiction? Alexander McCall Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (Columbia University Press, softcover, $12.95, 226 pages) would be a good choice. It introduces a remarkably original character, a young African woman who uses her inheritance to fulfill a dream.

As Smith sums it up, "[Her father] died shortly after her 34th birthday, and that was the point at which Precious Ramotswe, now parentless, veteran of a nightmare marriage, and mother, for a brief and lovely five days, became the first lady private detective in Botswana."

You won't find Mensa-bright serial killers or master criminals plotting billion-dollar capers in Precious' earthbound adventures. The cases of this self-made, naturally inclined sleuth involve totally credible situations: An overworked young woman wants to know if the lout she's waiting on hand and foot really is her long-missing father. A wealthy merchant is concerned that his daughter may be promiscuous.

The closest the formidable Precious comes to a high-profile situation concerns a missing boy who may have run afoul of a witch doctor, an investigation that forms a thread throughout the book.

When Precious made her smart and sassy debut in England three years ago, this novel was voted one of the International Books of the Year and the Millennium. I'm not sure why it took so long to cross the Atlantic, but the good news is that it has arrived with two sequels--"Tears of the Giraffe" (Columbia, $12.95, 202 pages) and "Morality for Beautiful Girls" (Columbia, $12.95, 225 pages), both nearly as delightful as the original.

"Giraffe" not only offers further investigations, but also charts the development of Precious' relationship with J.L.B. Matekoni, the proper owner of Speedy Motors auto service, whose maid is so opposed to their impending marriage that she turns homicidal.

In "Morality," just as the Ladies' Detective Agency is undergoing a cash flow problem, Precious' fiance suffers an attack of depression that delays their marriage plans and almost destroys his business. These events, though hardly earth-shattering, are thoroughly engaging and entertaining.

Smith, a law professor at Edinburgh University who has penned numerous legal texts and children's books, lived in Botswana for several years, and it shows: The series' portrait of that section of Africa is vivid and full.

He employs a style that is seemingly simple and direct, but this is a deception. Precious' progress is charted in passages that have the power to amuse or shock or touch the heart, sometimes all at once.

In "Smuggler's Moon" (Putnam, $24.95, 247 pages), his eighth adventure, the blind 18th century London judge Sir John Fielding, his young associate, Jeremy, who narrates the novels, and Lady Fielding's teenage assistant, Clarissa, travel to the seaside town of Deal in response to reports of "the owling trade" (night smuggling) in the area.

The town magistrate, Albert Sarton, has been accused of assisting the smugglers. He happens to be the protege of the Lord Chief Justice, who orders Fielding to find out if the accusation has any merit.

No sooner does the trio arrive than a vicious killer strikes. When Sarton is dispatched, an unusually furious Fielding assumes his position and concocts a plan to trap those responsible.

Bruce Alexander, the pseudonymous author responsible for these thrilling tales, has mastered the uncommon knack of deftly capturing a period-perfect historical time without endangering the liveliness of the story with excessive detail. "Smuggler's Moon" is a riveting addition to this superior series.

The cover of Bill Crider's latest mystery, "A Romantic Way to Die" (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur, $22.95, 224 pages), features a typical bodice-ripper book jacket painting vandalized by three angry bullet holes. It and the title are dead giveaways that this 11th homicide investigation for Dan Rhodes, the unassuming sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, will involve romance fiction and sudden death.

Here's the setup: Vernell Lindsey, who has just published her first novel, has arranged for a romance writers convention to help boost her home town of Clearview.

Adding to the excitement is the return of native son Terry Don Coslin, a model so handsome and pectorally perfect that he makes Fabio look like Frodo. He also seems to have had affairs with every female attending the convention.

It's not too hard to figure out that he's marked for an early demise, but he isn't the first to die. That would be Henrietta Bayam, a nasty would-be author claiming to be in the midst of a book exploiting the darkest secrets of members of her writers' group.

In the course of his investigation, Sheriff Dan, assisted by his deputy Ruth Grady, discovers that women who write about passion are not to be taken lightly. He's beaten, shot at and nearly blown up before he perseveres.

Crider is an old hand at concocting smartly crafted whodunits, and this one should provide his fans with a touch more entertainment than usual, thanks to its amusingly satiric swipes at such publishing staples as Wal-Mart book signings and the romance genre as a whole.

Dick Lochte's reviews of mystery books have moved from Sundays. They will now appear every other Wednesday.

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