THE EBONY SWAN.
Phyllis A. Whitney.
269 pages. $21
It would be easy enough to bash this convoluted tale of murder, not-so-accidental death, memory loss, family hostilities, red-herring villains, pistol-packing confession and -- here's the axis on which the whole thing spins -- an adulterous affair (on the Chesapeake Bay's Tangier Island) 50 years earlier.
Characters are pure cliche: Nurse Susan and Dr. Peter are good as gold. Grandmother Alex, former ballerina whose "Swan Lake" was the stuff of legend, is a strong, tragic woman with a past. Trusted old servants hover nearby.
But Phyllis Whitney can spin a compelling yarn. She makes you wonder why Dolores fell to her death on the stairs while her aged father, the great novelist Juan Gabriel, was struggling from his wheelchair and into a coma. You want to find out what Susan, just 6 years old at the time, saw and repressed, and whether Juan Gabriel knew about Alex and the Islander, and whether Peter will be cleared of suspicion in the poisoning of his wife, and whether he and Susan will ever exchange their chaste little kiss.
So in the end, critical judgment doesn't really matter. This is fast food for the eyes, and sometimes that's entertainment enough. For whatever reason -- a shared sense of intrigue, perhaps -- mystery novels and cats have always seemed to have something in common. But now, thanks to Susan Conant, dog lovers have a mystery mini-genre just for them. "Gone to the Dogs" is the fifth in her series of whodunits featuring dog trainer Holly Winter and her Alaskan malamutes, Rowdy and Kimi.
In this episode, a popular veterinarian has disappeared, and a rare-breed dog has died of questionable causes. If the suspense is less than spine-tingling -- fur-raising? -- and if Holly at times seems more concerned about the fate of the dog than the fate of the vet, well, at least the author doesn't resort to such cutesy tricks as telling the story from a canine point of view.
Instead, the story is told by Holly, whose narrative style relies a bit too heavily on rhetorical questions -- possibly a technique she uses to train dog owners in obedience classes. And, one of the book's added dividends is that it is filled with helpful obedience tips. You may not be able to train your dog to read them, but you'll certainly have a better idea of how to get him to sit still while you do.
J. WYNN ROUSUCK
NOTES FROM A BATTERED
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
` 267 pages. $22.95.
The secret to this story is the detail Don Asher finally lets slip toward the end -- he's recently been in London, working on a screenplay about musicians and entertainers for an unnamed British director. No wonder this memoir of a jazz pianist reads like a series of scenes (which in no way is meant as a criticism). Surely the great screenwriter in the sky did the outline for Mr. Asher's life: Poor white kid in Massachusetts gets piano lessons because older brother Herb turns out to be musical, and little Don proves to be quite adept at his scales, his technique, all the classical pieces.
The only problem is the music: There's something missing, a something he discovers in black jazz, at clubs where any musician with sufficient nerve and verve can sit in on a session, even a white kid. That is, if he's willing to endure all the teasing. Mr. Asher ends up, in addition to writing book and screenplay, playing dinner music at the Cafe Majestic. The prose along the way is a little bit precious, too insistently hip, but then Mr. Asher has had to compensate for that deprived upbringing of his, as a kid who knew only the classics.