SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT.Margaret Maron.Mysterious Press.241...

BOOK BRIEFS

June 20, 1993|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE NOVEMBER OF THE HEART. LaVyrle Spencer. Putnam. 381 pages. $22.95. | SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE NOVEMBER OF THE HEART. LaVyrle Spencer. Putnam. 381 pages. $22.95.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT.

Margaret Maron.

Mysterious Press.

241 pages. $17.95. Agood politician never misses a chance to make a campaign promise. That's how Deborah Knott, North Carolina's newest district court judge, wound up spending a hot and sweaty Saturday helping an all-woman crew construct a house for an impoverished single mother and her two kids. "It's going to be such great publicity having a judge out there swinging a pick," gushes Lu Bingham, the director of the project.

Unfortunately, one of WomanAid's hammers winds up being used in a far more sinister endeavor -- the murder of Colleton County's lecherous building inspector, Carver Bannerman. Carver had recently put the make on a high school girl, Cindy McGee, and he got his head bashed in during his attempted rape of Cindy's best friend, Annie Sue. Deborah has more than an academic interest in the case, since Annie Sue is her niece, and the chief suspect is her own brother, Herman.

Margaret Maron's first Deborah Knott mystery, "Bootlegger's Daughter," recently won the prestigious Edgar and Agatha awards for best mystery of 1992. "Southern Discomfort" is a worthy follow-up. Ms. Maron takes her own sweet time getting to the murder, but the smart, tart-tongued Judge Knott, who knows just how to cope with the good ol' boys and girls who aren't accustomed to seeing a woman behind the bench, is a singular delight.

Lorna Barnett is the daughter of Gideon Barnett, a wealthy, turn-of-the-century businessman in St. Paul, Minn. Besides his family, Gideon's passion is sailing. His dream is to win the regatta, a dream that seems destined to failure.

Jens Harken, who works in the Barnett kitchen, is also a dreamer; his aspiration is to build racing boats. During a banquet, Jens overhears Gideon's frustrations and brazenly offers his services. Gideon is both outraged and interested by Jens' arrogance, and Lorna is fascinated by Jens. Both Gideon and Lorna are drawn into a relationship with Jens, who is able to get Gideon's financial backing for a racing boat project. At the same time, he must decide whether to resist Lorna's advances or pursue them at his peril.

LaVyrle Spencer has gained a prominent niche in the historical-romance genre. Usually, she does an admirable job of fusing the period's atmosphere and interesting characters with a solid plot, but "November of the Heart" falls well short of her previous standards. Little about this heavily padded novel is compelling: Lorna and Jens are neither particularly unique nor believable products of their time and class system. The plot is predictable, and the novel's atmosphere is surprisingly bland. VTC The overall feeling is tedium rather than electricity.

EILEEN POWER

LADIES OF THE COURT.

Michael Mewshaw.

Crown.

327 pages. $22.

Women's tennis has yet to achieve parity with the men's professional tour. Women earn less, both in terms of prize money and endorsements -- and, according to Michael Mewshaw, author of a 1983 study of the men's circuit, they pay a higher price. Mr. Mewshaw watched the women's tour for signs of trouble, and while he had difficulty nailing down numbers and getting people to speak for attribution, he insists that there is trouble aplenty, from sexual abuse of vulnerable women players by their male coaches to parental abuse from moms and dads who have too much invested in their daughters, both financially and emotionally, to tolerate anything but success.

Some of his writing has an uncomfortably sensationalistic air to it, as though he were determined to push his sad point until it felt true. He is better when he does what he did with "Short Circuit," his book about the men's tour, providing anecdotal glimpses of a high-stress sport where catastrophe is as close as an ankle sprain or a pretty competitor who catches a sports agent's eye.

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