Some female private eyes and a story about Baltimore


Sue Grafton's alphabetical mystery series, which started nine years ago with " 'A' Is for Alibi," has made Kinsey Millhone one of America's favorite private eyes. Lately, Ms. Grafton has been showing us new sides of her intrepid detective. Last year's " 'G' Is for Gumshoe" featured a serious romantic involvement between Kinsey and a bodyguard, Robert Dietz. Now " 'H' Is for Homicide" (Holt, 256 pages, $17.95) gives us Kinsey under cover, playing the brassy Hannah Moore in order to get to the bottom of an insurance scam.

Unfortunately, Dietz is dispensed with early on, having left for an assignment in Germany. It would have been intriguing to see how Kinsey, a loner at heart, dealt with a long-term love affair. (Of course, as she had gone through two divorces before the series began, her romantic track record does leave something to be desired.)

Kinsey's latest task is to investigate a suspicious-looking insurance claim filed by a woman named Bibianna Diaz. With her convenient set of ID's in the name of the fictitious Hannah Moore, Kinsey shows up at Bibianna's door, saying she's looking for an apartment to rent. Later that night, Kinsey dons some tight-fitting clothes and follows Bibianna to a sleazy bar.

Bibianna recognizes "Hannah" from their earlier encounter, and the two strike up an acquaintance. Then, through a slightly improbable turn of events, Bibianna winds up being kidnapped with Kinsey in tow; their captor is Raymond Maldonado, a violent, brutish man who had been searching for Bibianna ever since she jilted him and went into hiding.

" 'H' Is for Homicide" succeeds because of the strength and believability of its characters; insurance fraud, after all, isn't exactly edge-of-the-seat material. Still, Ms. Grafton should be applauded for taking her series in such bold new directions. The very last sentence of the book clues us in to another major change in Kinsey's life. It will be very interesting to see what lies ahead in " 'I'."

Leslie Wetzon, executive search specialist, is really too nice a person to swim with the sharks on Wall Street. Her partner, Xenia Smith, is greedy, unprincipled and utterly

self-centered -- just the qualities you'd expect of someone who makes her living in New York's financial district.

In "The Deadliest Option" (Bantam, 340 pages, $18), Annette Meyers' third Smith and Wetzon mystery, Smith gets her kindhearted partner into trouble once again. It all begins when the pair attends a tribute dinner for Goldie Barnes, retiring head of Luwisher Brothers, a big trading firm. Barnes drops dead after taking a sip of his drink, and it looks very much like murder.

Ms. Meyers, a Wall Street insider, fills her books with irresistible details about life among the big-money movers and shakers. And Leslie Wetzon, who invariably tries to do the right thing when faced with a moral dilemma, is strong, savvy and immensely likable. "The Deadliest Option" is the most suspenseful and engaging effort yet in this series.

When Lowell Ransom, hero of Lee Moler's first novel, "Baltimore Blues" (St. Martin's, 256 pages, $17.95), ditches his drab white-collar job to become a private eye, his wife, Arla, isn't so sure he made a wise career move. Their fights escalate until Arla suggests Lowell leave home for a while. To prove he can succeed, Lowell must make a lot of money -- fast -- and gathering evidence on the habits of philandering spouses just won't cut it.

A woman named Doris Samski unexpectedly provides Lowell with the opportunity he's been searching for when she asks him to follow her husband, Walter, and account for his disappearances three nights a week. Walter's not cheating on Doris: He's working the night shift at an electronics company, soldering circuit boards for $30 an hour.

Lowell smells money and decides to launch his own investigation to find out just what those altered circuit boards are being used for.

Mr. Moler's complex plot is well-developed, with plenty of unexpected twists, but ultimately "Baltimore Blues" is undone by the author's penchant for purple prose. Such florid descriptions as "I could smell the musk of worried sweat seeping around the corners of his vest like the scent of oily meat being charred over a fire" abound, and distract from the action.

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