Sharon McCone investigates 36-year-old murder MYSTERIES

August 16, 1992|By Susanne Trowbridge

Finally free after 36 years in prison, Lis Benedict wants the world to know that she didn't kill her husband's lover, debutante Cordy McKittridge. Lis appeals to investigator Sharon McCone, but after solving a couple of cases that have left her emotionally ++ drained, Sharon is reluctant to get involved. "This woman, I thought, had been through absolute hell -- infinite varieties and refinements of hell that I couldn't even begin to imagine . . . I wished I could simply agree, relieve her anxiety, but something in me held back."

Of course, Sharon finally does agree to look into the murder in "Pennies on a Dead Woman's Eyes" (Mysterious Press, 297 pages, $18.95), Marcia Muller's 13th McCone mystery. The book's title refers to the coins left on Cordy's badly mutilated corpse -- an odd, ritualistic touch that helped make the case one of San Francisco's most notorious murders.

Lis doesn't want a new trial, even if Sharon manages to turn up rock-solid proof of her innocence. The case will be retried by the city's Historical Tribunal: "I am history, Miss McCone," Lis insists. But someone obviously does not want the matter reinvestigated.

"Pennies on a Dead Woman's Eyes" is a briskly paced, dynamic mystery; everybody connected with Cordy's murder seems to be keeping some sort of secret, and the suspense builds steadily until all the answers are finally revealed in a knockout finale. Fifteen years after her introduction, Sharon McCone is still one of the freshest and most intriguing private eyes around.

"A Fatal Attachment" (Scribners, 281 pages, $20), the new novel by Robert Barnard, tells the story of Lydia Perceval, a woman who steals other people's children. Not by kidnapping, mind; Lydia is far too subtle for that. A woman of considerable wealth, intelligence and refinement, she charmed her two nephews away from their rather dull, middle-class parents. But Gavin, the light of her life, was killed in the Falklands War, and Lydia considers Maurice, a television soap opera producer, a disgraceful failure.

Enter two new brothers -- Colin and Ted Bellingham, local schoolboys whose mother is conveniently afflicted with chronic fatigue. Lydia is elated.

But Lydia is strangled by an intruder before she gets a chance to go to work on the boys. Just before her death, Colin and Ted had overheard Lydia on the phone with her solicitor, describing her intention of leaving them a substantial sum in her will. The police detectives working on the case doubt the youngsters had the strength to do her in, and besides, there's no shortage of people who disliked the overbearing Lydia. But who disliked her enough to murder her?

"A Fatal Attachment" isn't quite as compelling as last year's "A Scandal in Belgravia," but Mr. Barnard proves once again what a master he is at creating memorable characters. Lydia is no one-dimensional shrew, but a complex woman who is also deeply caring, albeit in a most misguided way.

A mystery series about a crime-solving caterer named Goldy Bear would have to be as light and fluffy as a chocolate mousse, right? Guess again. Diane Mott Davidson's "Dying for Chocolate" (Bantam, 304 pages, $19.50), the second Goldy book, is actually dark suspense novel, complete with recipes -- sort of a cross between Mary Higgins Clark and Betty Crocker.

After catering an alumni brunch at an exclusive prep school, Goldy leaves with handsome psychologist Philip Miller, an old flame whom she's begun dating again. The two are driving separate cars, and Goldy, following Philip, notices that he's swerving and skidding all over the place. After a few minutes, his BMW collides with a bus, killing him instantly.

Philip had acted normally at the brunch, but he drove as though he were drunk or drugged. Goldy, and the police, suspect foul play. But Philip's death is only one of the caterer's dilemmas.

The beleaguered Goldy may not get a break, but readers can just head for the kitchen and whip up one of her sinfully rich treats. The triple-chocolate brownies are simply to die for.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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