MYSTERIES Friends, families and murder

August 15, 1993|By Susanne Trowbridge

"Ineed to make sure that this is the end of it for you," police detective C. K. Mackenzie warns his nosy girlfriend, Amanda Pepper, heroine of Gillian Roberts' sprightly new mystery, "With Friends Like These . . ." (Ballantine, 249 pages, $18). "No Nancy Drewing. No Jessica Fletchering. No Miss Marpling, either."

At first, Amanda, a Philadelphia schoolteacher who is also an enthusiastic amateur sleuth, readily agrees: This is one case she doesn't want to become involved in. Her parents had been invited to an old friend's 50th birthday party, but when her father is sidelined by a fractured foot, Amanda is recruited to escort her mom to the bash. But the birthday boy, Lyle Zacharias, drops dead on the dais while giving an after-dinner speech.

Despite her initial reluctance, Amanda dons her Sherlock Holmes hat yet again when her mother becomes the chief suspect. Mrs. Pepper's birthday gift to Lyle was a tin of homemade tarts, and the police discover that one of them was laced with poison. "Do you realize," Amanda asks Mackenzie, "that my mother devotes every single Wednesday to trying to save the Florida manatee from speedboat propellers? Does that sound like the kind of woman who would murder someone?"

Ms. Roberts' fourth mystery is a comic gem, laced with witty observations -- although even an author with her tongue placed firmly in cheek should have resisted the temptation to open her book with "It was a dark and stormy night."

Placing suspects on an island is nothing new, but Carolyn Hart gives the old tactic a fresh twist in "Dead Man's Island" (Bantam, 288 pages, $19.95) by bringing in an additional "killer" in the form of a hurricane. After eight popular novels starring bookstore owner Annie Laurance Darling, Ms. Hart is launching a new series featuring Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins, a retired reporter a half-century older than Annie.

Henrie O, a woman who packs "more twists and surprises into a single day than O. Henry ever did in a short story," is summoned to tiny Prescott Island by her old friend Chase Prescott, a media magnate who believes someone is trying to kill him. He has gathered all the suspects -- friends, co-workers, relatives -- and Henrie O must figure out which one wants to do him in.

She doesn't have much time to finger the culprit, since the fast-approaching hurricane is threatening to ravage Chase's lavish island paradise. When someone blows up the yacht that was the only means of leaving Prescott Island before the storm hits, Henrie O realizes she's not only dealing with a would-be killer, but with someone who is downright deranged.

"Dead Man's Island" takes awhile to get going, but once the hurricane nears, the book picks up speed, gathering momentum for a nail-biter of a finale in which the visitors to the island are forced to ride out the savage storm. And, yes, O. Henry fans should note that there is indeed a twist at the end of this tale.

Yes, Carol Higgins Clark, the author of "Snagged" (Warner Books, 227 pages, $18.95) is the daughter of mega-selling suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark. But they don't have much in common aside from their last two names. Mary is famous for shiver-inducing sagas; Carol's mysteries are featherweight but fun.

"Snagged" sends L.A.-based private eye Regan Reilly to Miami to serve as a bridesmaid for her old friend Maura. Before the wedding bells ring, however, Maura's elderly Uncle Richie may be evicted from his apartment building. The Fourth Quarter, which houses Richie and several other seniors, sits on a valuable piece of real estate in the city's trendy South Beach district.

Richie plans to save the Fourth Quarter by marketing his latest invention, run-proof pantyhose, and using the proceeds to buy the building. Unfortunately, that puts him in hot water with both real estate developers and pantyhose manufacturers. ("Remember our motto: Repeat Business," hisses one hosiery tycoon. "Over my dead body will a panty hose be marketed that doesn't run.") Regan has to protect Richie from a hit man without becoming a target herself.

The second Reilly book should delight fans of whimsical whodunits, while those who prefer their P.I.s hard-boiled will no doubt find "Snagged" too marshmallow-soft. Still, Ms. Clark does have a lively sense of humor; her heroine's mom just happens to be a world-famous mystery writer.

Ms. Trowbridge frequently reviews mysteries for The Sun.

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