Murder, murder everywhere, women are there to solve them

MYSTERIES

June 21, 1992|By Susanne Trowbridge

David Osborn's "Murder on the Chesapeake" (Simon & Schuster, 205 pages, $19) takes place at a posh girls' school on Maryland's Eastern Shore and climaxes with a boat race on the Chesapeake Bay. But the local setting is only one of this mystery's many charms; chief among them is its feisty, adventurous, 55-year-old heroine, Margaret Barlow.

Her granddaughter, Nancy, is now a student at Brides Hall, the boarding school where Margaret herself spent a few none-too-happy years. As a scholarship student, she was shunned by her well-heeled peers when they discovered that "my father did not belong to the Social Register or the Blue Book, nor to any Who's Who of industry, banking and other favored establishment turf. I was quickly labeled a 'reject,' and if not outwardly snubbed, then simply ignored."

What makes Margaret's trip to Brides Hall so bittersweet is that she's going to help investigate the murder of a 14-year-old girl, also a scholarship student, who was constantly harassed because of her family's economic standing. The case brings back plenty of bad memories, especially since the school's current headmistress, Ellen Mornay, was a classmate of Margaret's and one of her chief tormentors.

The insular world of an exclusive private school is a wonderful setting -- even the best-bred students have secrets they would kill to protect. Margaret must draw upon long- buried recollections of Brides Hall traditions and lore to solve the murder. Between unraveling clues and enjoying a flirtation with a police detective 10 years her junior, she even manages to make time for a few hang-gliding sessions.

After eight mysteries starring Sigrid Harald, a New York police detective, Margaret Maron looked South to find a setting for her new series. "Bootlegger's Daughter" (Mysterious Press, 261 pages, $18.95) takes place in fictional Colleton County, N.C. -- oddly enough, the same name used by Pat Conroy in "The Prince of Tides." As in Mr. Conroy's novel, the landscape almost functions as another character in "Bootlegger's Daughter," providing a lush scenic backdrop for this gripping story of murder and revenge.

Attorney Deborah Knott, daughter of the county's most notorious bootlegger, faces an uphill battle in her campaign for district judge. She doesn't need any further complications in her life when Gayle Whitehead comes along, begging Deborah to find out who killed her mother Janie 18 years ago. Deborah used to baby-sit Gayle, who has become obsessed with the unsolved crime; she has even begun to suspect her father.

Deborah reluctantly begins to probe the memories of local townsfolk, and, naturally, not everyone is anxious to have the matter brought back to light. When a couple more corpses turn up, seemingly related to the investigation, it looks as though somebody might get away with murder once again.

This is a gem of a novel, shrewdly plotted and rich in evocative detail -- the rituals of a small-town political campaign, the histories of families bound to their land for a century or more. "Bootlegger's Daughter" should leave readers hungry for more Deborah Knott mysteries.

It wasn't free-lance writer Cat Marsala's lucky day when she was assigned to do a piece on the Illinois lottery. In the third Marsala mystery, Barbara D'Amato's "Hard Luck" (Scribners, 242 pages, $20), the Chicago scribe almost loses her life in her quest to get the story.

Of course, Cat didn't set out to uncover any dark secrets, but shortly after beginning her research, one of her sources, the lottery's advertising manager, ends up dead on the sidewalk below City Hall. Did he jump or was he pushed? Cat suspects the latter, since the day before, he had promised to clue her into some hot information involving "misappropriation of public funds." Obviously, somebody overheard, and wants to put a stop to Cat's probing -- even if it means murdering her.

There's a little too much lottery lore in the first half of the book, but once Cat starts her showdown with the unknown assailant, "Hard Luck" delivers plenty of thrills. Ms. D'Amato's masterstroke is the book's strikingly original climax, in which Cat is stalked by the killer and has to take refuge in a very unusual hiding place (claustrophobics will definitely be biting their nails).

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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