Thrillers for the holiday season

MYSTERIES

November 17, 1991|By Susanne Trowbridge

When you're a cab driver, you never know who's going to turn up in the back seat of your taxi. In Linda Barnes' "Steel Guitar" (Delacorte, 272 pages, $18.50), her fourth novel to feature private eye and part-time cabbie Carlotta Carlyle, the driver's latest fare is Dee Willis, the superstar blues singer; she's returned to her hometown of Boston to play a concert and record some live cuts for her next album.

Dee also is a former friend of Carlotta's from their college days -- their once-close relationship fell apart years ago when Dee ran off with Carlotta's husband, Cal. But when she finds out that Carlotta is an investigator as well as a part-time cabbie, she hires her to find an old bandmate named Davey Dunrobie. Dee used to financially support Davey, a guitar player whose substance abuse destroyed his musical ability, but she has lost touch with him.

After Carlotta begins her search for Davey, Dee admits her real reason for wanting to find him -- she received a letter from his lawyer, claiming Dee stole three of Davey's songs. He wants $300,000 from her, or he'll go public with his accusation. "Davey Dunrobie never wrote one word or one note of any song I sing," Dee protests.

Dee's desperation to stay on top after her long, hard climb is poignant and real (the character seems to have been inspired by Bonnie Raitt, another blueswoman with Boston roots), and Carlotta is, as always, a wisecracking, vivacious delight. Best of all, while Ms. Barnes isn't afraid to show us the sleazy side of the record business, her love of music shines through on every page of "Steel Guitar."

Perfectly timed to cash in on all the hype over the release of the sequel to "Gone With the Wind," David Handler's "The Woman Who Fell From Grace" (Perfect Crime/Doubleday, 230 pages, $15) is the very funny story of a writer who attempts to pen Part 2 of the Great American Novel. The beloved book, "Oh, Shenandoah," is a romantic epic set during the Revolutionary War; its author, Alma Glaze, was killed by a hit-and-run driver shortly after the premiere of the film based on her best seller.

Fifty years after her death, Alma's sons approach Stewart "Hoagy" Hoag about writing the sequel to "Oh, Shenandoah." A down-on-his-luck writer of fiction who turned to ghostwriting celebrity memoirs when money got tight, Hoagy will receive none of the acclaim for "Sweet Land of Liberty," the title of the would-be blockbuster. He'll be ghosting it for Alma's obnoxious daughter, Mavis Glaze, a nationally known etiquette expert.

Alma left behind an outline for the sequel, but Mavis has some wacky ideas of her own -- for example, Evangeline, the heroine of "Oh, Shenandoah," actually is a space alien from Venus. Before long, Mavis and her family's housekeeper meet untimely ends, and Hoagy suspects that their murders may be related to Alma's long-ago death. Since the local sheriff, who is engaged to Mavis' daughter, is quite unhelpful, Hoagy begins his own investigation.

Perhaps fearing that his hero was too smart-alecky to be appealing, Mr. Handler has given Hoagy a whopping sentimental streak; he's a cat-hater who winds up falling for a feline, and at the novel's end he even decides to make peace with his estranged father. Those softening touches are OK, but it's when Hoagy turns sharp-tongued that "The Woman Who Fell From Grace" is at its wickedly witty best.

Here's an early Christmas present for mystery fans. "Christmas Stalkings" (Mysterious Press, 264 pages, $17.95), a new collection edited by Charlotte MacLeod, features 13 Yule-themed stories by some of the biggest names in the business, including Patricia Moyes, Robert Barnard, Elizabeth Peters and Ms. MacLeod herself.

One of the troubles with short mysteries is that often authors will attempt to squeeze a standard whodunit plot into 15 or 20 pages. It seldom works -- witness Medora Sale's "Angels" in this book. Happily, most of the stories in "Christmas Stalkings" take plenty of liberties with the usual mystery format.

Mickey Friedman's "The Fabulous Nick" is a charming, heartwarming story about a boy who's lost his faith in Santa Claus. Santa himself stars as an unconventional private eye. At the other end of the spectrum are "A Political Necessity," the sort of clever, caustic tale readers have come to expect from Robert Barnard, and Evelyn Smith's "Miss Melville Rejoices," in which the title character plots the murder of a deposed dictator despite her "long-standing custom . . . not to kill anyone over the Christmas holidays."

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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