Delivering basics: plot, character, environment MYSTERIES


Ever since Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre, there have been three areas of concern in mysteries: plotting, character development and environment. Some writers -- Agatha Christie jumps to mind -- enjoy immense success with plotting alone.

Add character development to strong plotting and you get P. D. James. Dick Francis has found a winning formula pushing wooden characters through fascinating plots in wonderfully detailed environments. All three elements -- a strong plot, and strong characters living in a fully realized world -- are found only in the works of mystery's masters: the American icon Raymond Chandler, the underappreciated Australian Arthur W. Upfield, the prolific Belgian Georges Simenon. But these writers are all dead, and in fairness it should be pointed out that Simenon sometimes forgot to toss a plot into his psychological stews.

These are the terms for discussing mysteries. Of three recent books looked at here, only "Those in Peril" (Nicholas Freeling, Mysterious Press, 212 pages, $18.95) comes close to full success. The hero, Henri Castang, is as introspective as Simenon's Inspector Maigret (there's even a direct reference to Maigret in the book); Paris is brought to life in a constant stream of details, descriptions and asides, but the story itself is thin. The reader never understands why a philandering policeman, whose wife has been the victim of a sexual assault, would use his daughter as bait to entrap a wealthy man who has been having sex with under-age girls.

In "Too Many Questions" (St. Martin's, 228 pages, $15.95), Leslie Grant-Adamson sets up her intertwined stories well but resolves them clumsily, putting private investigator Laura Flynn through some implausible antics. There's even a message from "the other side" relayed during a near-death experience. A particular slice of London is explored -- the Irish community that came over to work in construction right after World War II -- but it never quite comes together as a real world. It's a pity because so few British writers are even aware of their land's immigrant 'u communities.

H. R. F. Keating's latest Inspector Ghote novel, "The Iciest Sin" (Mysterious Press, 183 pages, $18.95), is concerned with blackmail: a boy threatening to expose his father's purchase of smuggled goods, a professional blackmailer threatening to wreck a scientist's career. The setting is Bombay, specifically the city's powerful Parsee community, but it's not only the city that conveys a sense of the exotic: it's Inspector Ghote's values, his expectations, his view of life.

Ghote himself lives and breathes as too few fictional characters do, but he's surrounded by cardboard figures -- his family and co-workers might as well be robots. As for the plot, when you have sympathetic characters being blackmailed and you can't possibly have the reasons made public, a little deux ex machina is called for -- Providence must intervene and set things aright. That's what happens and, I'm sorry to say, you can see it coming for miles.

Mr. Bailey is a writer living in Paris.

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