VULTURESRobert Barnard.Scribners.231 pages...

A HOVERING OF

October 10, 1993|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE QUIET-CRAZY Joyce Durham Barrett Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 292 pages. $16.95 | SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE QUIET-CRAZY Joyce Durham Barrett Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 292 pages. $16.95,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A HOVERING OF VULTURES

Robert Barnard.

Scribners.

231 pages. $20.

After solving the murder of a writer in last year's "A Fatal Attachment," Detective Constable Charlie Peace returns to crack another literary case in Robert Barnard's 26th book, "A Hovering of Vultures." The predators in question have converged on the tiny Yorkshire town of Micklewike, where author Susannah Sneddon wrote her classic novels early in the century. Entrepreneur Gerald Suzman has purchased the farmhouse where Susannah and her brother Joshua lived -- until the day when Joshua, presumably in a fit of jealous rage, killed his sister and then himself.

Suzman plans to launch a new literary society, the Sneddon Fellowship, at a weekend conference of Susannah's admirers. Among those assembled are Gillian Parkin, a Ph.D.candidate working on a thesis about Susannah's books; Rupert Coggenhoe, a moderately successful author who wants to rocket to fame on the Sneddons' coattails; Lettie Farraday, who grew up in Micklewike but hasn't been back in 60 years; and Randolph Sneddon, a distant relative of the famous siblings. Naturally, one of the congregants won't survive the weekend.

It's always great fun to watch Mr. Barnard lampoon the pretentions of the literary world, and "A Hovering of Vultures" contains an ample amount of sharp satire and droll wit. Charlie is a shrewd and likable detective, and the solution to the mystery manages to be both surprising and satisfyingly logical. Her sister is long dead, but Elizabeth is still carrying angelic Angela around inside of her, fulfilling a role that her possessive mother won't let her shed. No wonder she's "Quiet-Crazy" and is in the mental hospital.

In Joyce Durham Barrett's first novel, Elizabeth is a young woman who can't speak her mind. Being wild-crazy has more appeal to her than being quiet. "That might feel better than keeping everything bottled up," she thinks, picturing a shaken Coca-Cola bottle: "Whatever would I do if I went spewing out everywhere?"

Though she's a perpetual victim, she seems pretty self-aware. She's almost cheerful in her depression and sexual confusion. In the most engaging parts of the story, during her stays at the hospital, her own personality emerges along with a dark secret.

That's as sophisticated and disturbing as the thin plot gets, but the novel offers an agreeable stay in Elizabeth's quiet-crazy mind. Her insanity, we discover, is more sane than her ostensibly normal home in a gossipy Southern town, where her histrionic mother lines the sidewalk with blue magnesia bottles after drinking them dry. Her kind father just stays out of the way.

CHRIS KRIDLER

EVEN-STEVEN AND FAIR AND

SQUARE: MORE STORIES

BEHIND THE WORDS

Morton S. Freeman

Plume

+ 304 pages. $11 (paperback).

Why do you get a charley horse and not a bobby horse? Or a charley cow? Why isn't it "the nude truth?" By the same token, why didn't Rubens paint nakeds? Who named the kangaroo? (Actually, it was Capt. James Cook, who, on seeing one for the first time, asked what it was. "Kangaroo," said the natives, which is Aboriginal for "I don't know.") Finally, why is Morton Freeman so honest? About half of the entries in this happy if haphazard stroll down Etymology Lane are stamped, in effect, "nobody knows."

Still, there are enough truffles here to keep a word wonk digging. The connections are the most fun: the link between "lasagna" and "chamber pot," between "haber--er" and the Icelandic word for "a sack of oats," between "orchid" and "testicles" (blame that one on Pliny the Elder). Digging even deeper, Mr. Freeman finds that a bride once promised not to love and obey but to be "buxom." That the word for "wife" was "hussy." That the archaic word for "doctor" was "leech."

Good stuff, this -- stuff you won't find on the TV. As for a picture being worth a thousand words, Leo Rosten, who wrote the introduction, says, "Really? Then draw me a picture of the Gettysburg Address."

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