A summer's worth of distractions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A review of summer fiction in Sunday's Arts & Society section referred incorrectly to an independent Baltimore bookstore that specializes in mystery titles. Its name is Mystery Loves Company.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of amusement than any other single subject," said English mystery writer Dorothy Sayers. She was mistaken only in confining the remark to those of British heritage. The entertaining purveyors of fictitious death, variously called crime novel, thriller, detective or murder mystery, now comprise the major fund of fun-reading in the whole world. It seems there are more murder titles published, and more translated into more different languages, than any other variety of fiction.

It is impossible to quantify just how much crime fiction is being sold. Publishers -- who have cut back after putting out a glut of more than a thousand titles last year - are reluctant to classify them in a category overwhelmed by works of unredeeming literary value. Mystery fiction in general fits in a class closer to soap opera than "Masterpiece Theatre." Yet the more sophisticated consumers of crime novels would never surf TV for the likes of "The Young and the Restless."

A book publisher's survey showed that "mystery lovers have the highest incomes and read more than anybody else." Bibliophiles flocking to Smith or Brandeis college used-book sales are reported to raid the mystery tables first. In an age when blockbuster bookstores are depressing the independents, the number of specialized shops, like Baltimore's I Love a Mystery, has risen from two to 200 nationwide. This may be because even the least discriminating mystery fans need expert advice and ready availability the superstore can't supply.

At least three mysteries will appear on today's bestseller lists, but book reviewers will devote little attention to the genre. No need here to consider the prolific works of that elite corps of authors (hooray! most are women!) like Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwall, who arouse knee-jerk enthusiasm for any novel they get to market. There's no way to comprehensively cover and compare their competition. This ,X commentary is arbitrarily limited to those very recently published novels that happened to spill out of the grab bag as it passed today's reviewing stand.

Sue Grafton's "N is for Noose" (Henry Holt, 289 pages, $25), is one of the blockbusters, the 14th in the "alphabet series" featuring a grown girl-scout version of a private eye appropriately named Kinsey Millhone. Grafton's fine facility for depicting atmosphere and character is not matched by an ability to weave a cogent plot around them. The standard whodunnit elimination contest is disappointing but does have an original twist when the only true villain turns out to be one of the victims.

"Pulse" by Edna Buchanan (Avon Books, 321 pages, $23) has a novel story line, a yuppie hero with a new lease on life needing to know too much about how his heart transplant donor died. Predictably, the research begins with the attractive, needy widow of the heartless deceased. The plot, laced with expertise on medicine, wild-bird preservation and domestic relations, gets overly melodramatic and preachy, but it all settles down in the end.

"Cold Caller: A White Collar Noir," by Jason Starr (W.W. Norton, 218 pages, $12), is Starr's first novel. It comes much closer to being a literary tour de force than a murder mystery. Well told in the first person by the killer, the only mystery is how and whether he is going to get away with it. One cheers for the salvation of Bill Moss, a lying but likable sociopath, cast in a satire where killing to get ahead in a smarmy office doesn't seem like such a bad idea. The conclusion is inspired.

"The Audubon Quartet" by Ray Sipherd (St. Martin's Press, 258 pages, $22.95) is not so much potboiler as boilerplate. This follow-up on the earlier adventures of artist and amateur sleuth Jonathan Wilder does not compare favorably. The motive to knock off so many people over the forgeries of four "newly discovered" paintings by the famous ornithologist is never made clear, though we learn some interesting things about the genuine artist, the art of forgery and life in Brahmin society.

A more intriguing new art-mystery thriller is "The Gravity of Shadows" by David Ramus (HarperCollins, 293 pages, $24). The art-appreciation course is delivered through Wil Sumner, a down-on-his-luck dealer in the astronomical reaches of the not-so-fine art world. Wil is recruited to appraise the exquisite collection of an old-moneyed Palm Beach family whose patriarch is dying of natural causes. Rejecting the temptation to straighten out his finances by lifting a book of Velasquez sketches, Wil sticks around the mansion to find himself in a maelstrom of murder tracing back to the old man's experiences during the Spanish Civil War, and down to Florida politics, with Cuban refugee ruffians in between.

Buy this book. It's not only a good read, but the proceeds go toward a worthy cause -- restitution to art collectors the author scammed in his former real life as a New York gallery owner. Now in Palm Beach after finishing a jail sentence, Ramus is writing a third crime novel.

"Murder for Revenge," edited by Otto Penzler (Delacorte, 360 pages, $21.95), is a collection of 12 original short stories centered on the theme of retaliation. A predecessor anthology ,, was "Murder for Love." Each piece is by an established writer -- not all from the mystery genre -- who specially answered the call of Mr. Penzler -- considered to be the High Priest of crime book publication.

Harking back to Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, the succinct quality of a short story can be a relief from having to traverse the proliferation of gratuitous events that even the best writers need to chock into a full-length novel. This is especially true of the mystery story, where plotting is paramount and digressions need to be frantically factored into the climactic last few pages. Except for Mary Higgins Clark's, these tales are all first-rate. Vicki Hendricks' "West End" is the standout, but only a shade better than Judith Kelman's "Eradicum Homo Horribilus," or Eric Lustbader's domestic tragedy "Dead Cat Bounce."

With many yet unread, it is still safe to conclude that the first full-length crime novel ever written, Wilkie Collins' "Moonstone" (1860) has never been exceeded, except perhaps by his "The Woman in White" (1868). Both are still in print.

Elsbeth Bothe is a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge, who represented a number of death row inmates as a lawyer and tried capital cases as a judge. She retired after spending 18 years on the bench.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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