"Stiff News," by Catherine Aird. St. Martin's....


"Stiff News," by Catherine Aird. St. Martin's. 240 pages. $21.95.

Catherine Aird has been writing mysteries for more than 30 years and she hasn't lost her sure touch.

Her latest, "Stiff News," is set in Calleshire, England, in an old-folks' home for members of a certain World War II military regiment and their wives and widows.

The residents at Almstone Manor are dying. Sure, they're old, but some might be dying before their time. One resident, Gertrude Powell, writes in a letter to her son that she's being murdered, "under a Pragmatic Sanction I didn't want."

He gets the letter the day of her funeral and takes it to Detective Inspector Sloan, who grabs fast-driving Detective Constable Crosby to get them to the cemetery before the burial.

Something decidedly unusual is going on at the home and a number of residents seem to know what it is. One man becomes nearly hysterical when his coat is repaired for his 90th birthday. Later, the coat is slashed while in the closet and he doesn't seem upset. An amulet belonging to Gertrude has been wiped clean of fingerprints. A widow disappears and so does a Scottish dagger that had hung on a wall.

Maybe it's revenge for something that happened at one of the regiment's big battles. If so, why now, so long after the war, and why involve women?

The reader is puzzled and quietly amused throughout the book, as Crosby can be counted on to make gauche comments during questioning, exasperating Sloan. Their boss, Superintendent Leeyes, is more unpredictable. He might say something that's off the wall or get right to the heart of the matter.

There isn't a lot of action in "Stiff News," but the puzzles are remarkably intriguing.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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