Ladies dominate writing, sleuthing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Up for a count nearly equal to their predominance in romance novels, women overwhelm the mystery market these days. A sample batch of recent releases finds fresh adventures for interior designer Ellie Haskell ("The Trouble with Harry," by Dorothy Cannell); private detective Carlotta Carlyle ("Flashpoint, by Linda Barnes); Egyptologist Amelia Peabody ("The Falcon at the Portal," by Elizabeth Peters); Harvard professor Nikki Chase ("Blue Blood," by Pamela Thomas-Brown); reporter Natalie Gold ( "In Colt Blood," by Jody Jaffe); jazz sax player Nanette Hayes ("Coq au Vin," by Charlotte Carter).

On her seventh time out, investigative reporter Irene Kelly is in noir mood with "Bones" by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster, 375 pages, $23.) Her adversary, Nick Parrish, is a cross between Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter. It's not so original that Nick severs and savors his victims' body parts. But Nick has a new angle: Conceal the carnage deep in the south Sierras.

When you're caught -- as you're bound to let happen if your show is to be more attention grabbing than the sound of a tree falling in the forest -- make a deal to locate the tree in exchange for escaping the death penalty.

The authorities bite. Led by Nick licking his lips at Irene, an expedition of police, forensic experts and a tracking dog, proceed on a harrowing search followed by a hair-raising pursuit that provides Irene opportunity to undertake miraculous feats -- for naught, as Nick is just teasing.

Less than halfway through the book, the survivors get back without Nick, but bearing a lot more bones than they bargained for. With a surplus of false leads and digressions, the remaining pages are a comparative letdown, but are held up by meticulous research and taut writing to reach a nifty conclusion.

The contrast between Nancy Star's TV talk-show producer May Morrison ("Now This," Pocket Books, 341 pages, $24) and k.j.a. Wishnia's Ecuadorean ex-cop earth mother Filomena Buscarsela ("Soft Money," Dutton, 226 pages, $23.95) could not be more striking. Before taking off for midtown Manhattan, May escorts her giggly daughters to the school bus stop where she lingers over girl-talk with the soccer moms before facing "Paula Live." Meanwhile, Filo is trucking her toddler for unlicensed day care up five flights of a tenement building on upper Broadway before hitting the streets looking for work or a handout from the child's shiftless dad.

When sleuthing gets treacherous, May packs her kids off to Disneyland. Filo takes hers along for a mother-and-child cover. Filo seeks self-preservation through the Voodoo ministrations of Papa Legba; May goes for mud baths and herbal remedies.

Murders come to May when her best friend, Stacy Blum, is found dead in her backyard swimming pool. Four other ladies who have taken medications prescribed through Stacy's husband's clinic expire from odd illnesses. May is about to feature a talk show segment on a spa her unhealthy friends frequent. And so it goes to a sick ending.

Filo's sleuthing starts with a crime that's "as common as Lincoln head pennies," the robbery-murder of a kindly barrio shopkeeper. Another penny drops more victims from the holdup of a bodega in the Bronx. Filo moves in May's direction getting a "respectable" job with the "Environmental Action Foundation" that's not above laundering mobster money for a polluting industrialist who tried to murder Filo in her last book but helps this time.

May's glamour job is comparatively uninteresting. She'll probably quit before her next appearance, what with the burdens of uniting households with her detective boyfriend.

But Philomena will stick with you as you turn back and look forward to pages of colorful prose that leave you tingling with the joy of knowing her too well to cultivate.

Janet Evanovich cleverly found Stephanie Plum a job as a bounty hunter. Chasing bail jumpers is quasi-legitimate fun and games for a sexy, uninhibited young lady. Stephanie performs with hedonistic aplomb.

This time, starring in "High Five" (St. Martins, 292 pages, $23.95), business is slow. Uncle Fred has disappeared. Nobody in Stephanie's oddball family really cares, but she has nothing better to do, and the case revives opportunity for intercourse of all varieties with a number of tiresomely zany characters.

The major mystery remains: Who will it be? Morelli the hunk of a dumb cop "who has skills not covered in the policeman's handbook," or super bounty hunter Ranger, "whose body is as good as a body can get"? We are told to stay tuned for the next installment, which might even include a man with a brain.

Now for a couple of worthy males who come forth with remarkably topical new books: Lawrence Block's ninth featuring scofflaw Bernie Rhodenbarr, "The Burglar in the Rye" (Dutton, 280 pages, $23.95) and Doug Swanson's fresh entry for wise guy lawyer, Jack Filippo, "Umbrella Man" (Putnam, 273 pages, $23.95).

These stories would have to have been crafted before Bernie could know that the reclusive J.D. Salinger's 14 letters to Joyce Maynard would auction for $156,500 and be returned by the buyer to the writer, and before Jack could be aware that the Zapruders would be awarded $16 million for their strip of historical celluloid. The fiction is eerily close to the mark.

Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs will look wryly upon Jack Filippo's tragi-comic involvement in a scheme to recover the "DuFrain film," that "exposes" a second umbrella man, proof positive of a massive conspiracy operating on that fateful day in Dallas." The con-man who ropes in Jack takes tourists for a ride in his "You-are-there JFK deathmobile," and there are quite a few other enterprising crackpots in a plot that's fun to follow.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a gentler, brighter version of Jack Filippo. It's refreshing to be able to get away with him from a hackneyed diet of hoodlums and heroes chased and chaste, and be at New York's venerable "Paddington" (read Chelsea) Hotel, where Bernie has registered under an alias he can't rightly remember, in order to filch letters of secretive author Gulliver Fairhorn from the room of literary agent Anthea Landau. She is dead on his arrival, the letters are missing, and Bernie is among a number of equally eligible suspects.

There follows a romp peopled by pretentious literati, corrupt cops, effete and wealthy collectors, Fairhorn groupies and girlfriends. To wind it up, Bernie calls an old-fashioned gathering and goes through an explication too complicated to follow, but nevertheless satisfying to readers -- and to all but one of those present.

Elsbeth Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying capital cases. She does occasionally still sit on the bench. As a lawyer, Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years, Bothe has been collecting books on crime (mostly murder) since age 10.

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