Deborah Adams. Ballantine.211...

ALL THE DARK DISGUISES.

February 28, 1993|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE INTO THIS AIR. Caroline Leavitt. Warner Books. 320 pages. $18.95. | SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE INTO THIS AIR. Caroline Leavitt. Warner Books. 320 pages. $18.95.,LOS ANGELES TIMES 5/8

ALL THE DARK DISGUISES. Deborah Adams. Ballantine.

211 pages. $3.99 (paperback). Most mystery series center on a hero or heroine who solves a crime in each new outing. Deborah Adams' books are a little different: The star of her series is not a person but the town of Jesus Creek, an unassuming hamlet -- with a very high homicide rate -- in central Tennessee.

Ms. Adams' delightful innovation is to have each novel narrated by a different resident of Jesus Creek, allowing us to get varying perspectives on the town and its inhabitants.

"All the Dark Disguises" focuses on Kay Martin, a waitress and aspiring poet who moonlights as a saleswoman for Lady Mystique Cosmetics. It's not easy to sell moisturizer and mascara when all the women in town are terrified of a serial killer known as the Night Terror, who preys on blue-eyed blonds. ("I can recommend Lady Mystique Hair Color, number 366, Bashful Brunette," suggests Kay.)

Despite her brown tresses, however, Kay fears that she's been targeted by the Terror when the ominous message "YOU NEXT" is carved into her front door.

Ms. Adams' books perfectly capture the rhythms of life in a small town, where everyone sees it as a God-given right to know everybody else's business.

Unfortunately, as a mystery, "All the Dark Disguises" is unlikely to baffle even the least observant readers; figuring out the identity of the Night Terror is ridiculously easy. The book has plenty of charms, but a few more suspects would have made it better. When this book begins, the protagonist, Lee Archer, has decided to leave the daughter to whom she has just given birth. Lee is 19, and she has already run away once. Now, Lee doesn't so much want to run away as she wants to, in her words, enter a stranger's life.

"Into Thin Air," Caroline Leavitt's latest novel, tells a moving coming-of-age story, set for the most part in Baltimore. Yet Ms. Leavitt's Baltimore seems thin beside the Baltimore described by Anne Tyler. The language, though, is fresh and vivid, and keeps a somewhat familiar plot from becoming tired. Here's Lee just after she has run away from her home in Baltimore: "Her image unfolding in the waves of heat and dust . . . what she was then was so shimmery she could have been just another mirage."

When the book ends, Lee has lived in several cities -- Philadelphia, Richmond, Baltimore, Lubbock, Madison. She has run away from her father, her stepmother, her husband and her daughter. She has even tried to run away from herself. The point of this story, however, is that she is unable to do so.

DIANE SCHARPER

IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER I WOULD PICK MORE DAISIES. Edited by Sandra Martz. Papier-Mache Press. 205 pages. $16 ($10 paperback).

This is a sequel to the 1987 "When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple," which sold 650,000 copies and enabled editor Sandra Martz to quit her corporate job to devote herself full time to publishing.

Like the earlier work, "Daisies" is an anthology of 62 stories and poems and 17 photographs, picked from more than 3,000 submissions. The idea is to publish the voices of what Ms. Martz calls "ordinary" people -- not big-name writers, but teachers, homemakers, retirees, everyone from a black lesbian feminist poet to a retired registered nurse.

The offerings are as varied as the contributors, but the thread running through them is that life can be, will be -- should be -- incrementally better, and it is up to each of us to nudge it in the proper direction.

In this anthology, with its theme of life reconsidered, there is also an underlying urgency, a sense that there is not a minute left to be wasted.

"If I had my life to live over," goes the title essay, "I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies."

That is hardly a call to arms, and probably is too close to treacle for some readers, but still it's a genuine, gentle reminder that it's never too late to change.

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