It's one of the longest-running debates in the world of mystery fiction -- which is the superior subgenre, cozy "traditional" mysteries or hard-boiled? It's rare indeed to find a fan who enjoys reading both; while cozy lovers devour novels by Charlotte MacLeod, Patricia Moyes, Simon Brett and Agatha Christie, hard-boiled addicts turn to Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Andrew Vachss and Raymond Chandler.
Stepping into the fray is Carolyn G. Hart, whose latest book, "The Christie Caper" (Bantam, 336 pages, $18), is a sharp and witty examination of what can happen when fans of each type of mystery confront one another. Of course, Ms. Hart, an unabashed traditionalist who nevertheless has a soft spot for the hard-boiled, has stacked the deck in favor of the cozy mavens; the action takes place at a convention honoring the grande dame of the traditional mystery, Agatha Christie.
Bookstore owner Annie Laurance Darling has spent over a year organizing her Christie celebration, inviting all the top cozy writers and planning garden parties and trivia games. However, the event gets off to a bad start when the much-loathed Neil Bledsoe, mystery critic and publisher of Mean Streets magazine, turns up at South Carolina's posh Palmetto House Hotel, site of the convention.
What in the world would Neil, who calls cozy writers "pansies," be doing at such a gathering? He does have in tow his Christie-loving aunt,Kathryn Honeycutt (a dead ringer for Miss Marple), but the real reason for his presence soon emerges. Desperate for money to pay off gambling debts, Neil is planning to write a sordid tell-all biography of Christie, to be serialized in coming issues of Mean Streets. There's a small fortune to be made selling subscriptions to the curious faithful.
However, it's uncertain that Neil will live to write his expose, because somebody keeps trying to kill him.
"The Christie Caper" is the best entry yet in Ms. Hart's pleasurable series; eminently logical and meticulously plotted, it does justice to the Mistress of Mystery herself. And there are plenty of those wonderfully inscrutable references to other mysteries that Ms. Hart can't resist slipping into her books.
Marcia Muller's 12th Sharon McCone novel, "Where Echoes Live" (Mysterious Press, 326 pages, $17.95), has a fascinating setting -- the high desert of northeastern California, where pinnacles of calcified vegetation called tufa form "a petrified forest of twisted, surreal shapes."
The investigator has left her San Francisco home at the request of her friend Anne-Marie Altman, attorney for the California Council for Environmental Preservation. A big corporation has purchased a gold mine near the ghost town of Promiseville, and is planning to use modern techniques to extract ore from the long- dormant mine. The council wants to prevent the mining operation, which could harm the local ecosystem.
Meanwhile, environmentalists have been the victims of a series ofbreak-ins, which Anne-Marie wants Sharon to look into, along with other suspicious happenings. Before long, the man who bought the mine from a local prospector is found murdered.
"Where Echoes Live" is one of the lesser lights of Ms. Muller's usually superb series; it's maddeningly slow-paced, but does have a bang-up conclusion. Sharon spends even more time than usual brooding -- about her parents' impending divorce, her troubled relationship with her assistant Rae, and, as always, her turbulent love life.
Readers contemplating major surgery should definitely stay away from John Harvey's "Cutting Edge" (Henry Holt, 277 pages, $18.95), a tale of gory goings-on in an English Midlands hospital. Staff members are being slashed by a scalpel-wielding madman, and several patients have been the victims of something pretty awful as well.
On the case is Inspector Charlie Resnick, jazz- and cat-loving detective. Life is pretty miserable for Charlie; his investigation is going nowhere, a homeless alcoholic (and former jazz musician) has taken up residence in his house and his ex-wife humiliates him at a party.
From the first page to the last, "Cutting Edge" is as dreary as a gray and drizzly English day. Also, the novel suffers from an overabundance of characters; one five-page chapter contains 13 separate scenes, each told from a different person's point of view.
Ms. Trowbridge frequently reviews mysteries for The Sun.