Murder most funny, with a pea and a cat

May 25, 1994|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Special to The Sun

Charlotte MacLeod and Marian Babson are two of the most prolific practitioners of the screwball whodunit -- between them, they've written more than 50 mystery novels. Ms. MacLeod's latest book is the 11th whimsical adventure starring Peter Shandy, a professor of horticulture whose skill as an amateur sleuth is second only to his green thumb. Ms. Babson, whose "Murder at the Cat Show" was a hit among feline fanciers, crosses cats and crime once again in the lighthearted "Nine Lives to Murder."

Ms. MacLeod hangs her tale upon a fairly flimsy premise, not that the plot makes all that much difference; it's just an excuse for the author to present a new gallery of amiably eccentric characters, spouting the fancifully ornate dialogue which charms some readers and bugs the heck out of others, depending on one's taste. (This is the type of book in which people actually say things like, "I might as well beguile the interval with a small preprandial libation from my private stock.")

Peter Shandy has journeyed to tiny Pickwance, Maine, to harvest lupine seeds, but his innocent mission is rudely interrupted when he witnesses the death of a local resident in the dining room of the town's inn. For once, Peter decides that the suspicious event none of his business and that he should leave Pickwance as fast as possible.

But when he falls in love with a mysterious painting in a nearby farmhouse, he resolves to hang around until he can arrange to purchase it. If that just happens to give him time to solve the murder, well, so be it.

The victim, Jasper Flodge, was universally despised -- in fact, his abrupt parting inspires his ex-wife to celebrate with a champagne toast. The fatal dose of poison was apparently delivered in a tiny capsule, disguised as a pea, hidden in %J Jasper's chicken pot pie; that makes Elva Bright, the grandmotherly innkeeper, the most likely killer. Still, since everyone in town appears to carry a grudge against Jasper, who by all accounts was a heartless con man, picturesque Pickwance is rife with suspects.

Like all the author's books, "Something in the Water" is often very funny, though in a sly and subtle way; she assumes her readers will get the joke when she bestows on a character the moniker of Eustace Tilkey (it helps to be a New Yorker fan). For admirers of Ms. MacLeod's witty, wordy style, this romp of a mystery offers a blooming good time.

The hapless hero of "Nine Lives to Murder" is Winstanley Fortescue, Shakespearean actor and a rogue of a fellow who can't stop cheating on his sweet, devoted wife. Then, one day, a freak accident catapults Fortescue's soul and personality into the small, furry body of Monty, the theater cat; simultaneously, the feline takes possession of the actor's noble frame.

As he reluctantly comes to grips with the predicament of being trapped in a cat's body, Fortescue makes a frightful discovery -- his fall off a ladder, which resulted in his fateful collision with Monty, was no accident; someone was trying to murder him and is likely to try again.

As long as his body is alive and well, even if it's not currently under his dominion, there's still hope that Fortescue can return to his rightful state.

If the body dies, well, he's trapped forever in the frame of a cat that's already used up a fair share of his nine lives.

His feline form proves to be the perfect vehicle for sleuthing; Fortescue can slink around virtually undetected, even managing sneak into the hospital room to keep tabs on his body. His cat's-eye view permits him to spy on his friends and colleagues, taking in their uncensored remarks and discovering which ones wished him ill.

A cat's life isn't all work and no play, though. True to his character, Fortescue turns out to be quite the tomcat, enjoying romantic interludes with female felines -- after one such liaison, he realizes that "he'd never be able to call himself a cat-lover without a guilty qualm in the future."

Ms. Babson manages to wring a lot of comic mileage out of her fantastic premise, making this giddy, fizzy farce a treat for any cat aficionado.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer who lives in Baltimore. She frequently reviews mysteries for The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Something in the Water"

Author: Charlotte MacLeod

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Length, price: 262 pages, $18.95

Title: "Nine Lives to Murder"

Author: Marian Babson

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 188 pages,

$18.95

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