A summer's worth of distractions

May 31, 1998|By Elsbeth Bothe | Elsbeth Bothe,Special to the sun

A review of summer fiction in Sunday's Arts & Society section referred incorrectly to an independent Baltimore bookstore that specializes in mystery titles. Its name is Mystery Loves Company.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of amusement than any other single subject," said English mystery writer Dorothy Sayers. She was mistaken only in confining the remark to those of British heritage. The entertaining purveyors of fictitious death, variously called crime novel, thriller, detective or murder mystery, now comprise the major fund of fun-reading in the whole world. It seems there are more murder titles published, and more translated into more different languages, than any other variety of fiction.

It is impossible to quantify just how much crime fiction is being sold. Publishers -- who have cut back after putting out a glut of more than a thousand titles last year - are reluctant to classify them in a category overwhelmed by works of unredeeming literary value. Mystery fiction in general fits in a class closer to soap opera than "Masterpiece Theatre." Yet the more sophisticated consumers of crime novels would never surf TV for the likes of "The Young and the Restless."


A book publisher's survey showed that "mystery lovers have the highest incomes and read more than anybody else." Bibliophiles flocking to Smith or Brandeis college used-book sales are reported to raid the mystery tables first. In an age when blockbuster bookstores are depressing the independents, the number of specialized shops, like Baltimore's I Love a Mystery, has risen from two to 200 nationwide. This may be because even the least discriminating mystery fans need expert advice and ready availability the superstore can't supply.

At least three mysteries will appear on today's bestseller lists, but book reviewers will devote little attention to the genre. No need here to consider the prolific works of that elite corps of authors (hooray! most are women!) like Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwall, who arouse knee-jerk enthusiasm for any novel they get to market. There's no way to comprehensively cover and compare their competition. This ,X commentary is arbitrarily limited to those very recently published novels that happened to spill out of the grab bag as it passed today's reviewing stand.

Sue Grafton's "N is for Noose" (Henry Holt, 289 pages, $25), is one of the blockbusters, the 14th in the "alphabet series" featuring a grown girl-scout version of a private eye appropriately named Kinsey Millhone. Grafton's fine facility for depicting atmosphere and character is not matched by an ability to weave a cogent plot around them. The standard whodunnit elimination contest is disappointing but does have an original twist when the only true villain turns out to be one of the victims.

"Pulse" by Edna Buchanan (Avon Books, 321 pages, $23) has a novel story line, a yuppie hero with a new lease on life needing to know too much about how his heart transplant donor died. Predictably, the research begins with the attractive, needy widow of the heartless deceased. The plot, laced with expertise on medicine, wild-bird preservation and domestic relations, gets overly melodramatic and preachy, but it all settles down in the end.

"Cold Caller: A White Collar Noir," by Jason Starr (W.W. Norton, 218 pages, $12), is Starr's first novel. It comes much closer to being a literary tour de force than a murder mystery. Well told in the first person by the killer, the only mystery is how and whether he is going to get away with it. One cheers for the salvation of Bill Moss, a lying but likable sociopath, cast in a satire where killing to get ahead in a smarmy office doesn't seem like such a bad idea. The conclusion is inspired.

"The Audubon Quartet" by Ray Sipherd (St. Martin's Press, 258 pages, $22.95) is not so much potboiler as boilerplate. This follow-up on the earlier adventures of artist and amateur sleuth Jonathan Wilder does not compare favorably. The motive to knock off so many people over the forgeries of four "newly discovered" paintings by the famous ornithologist is never made clear, though we learn some interesting things about the genuine artist, the art of forgery and life in Brahmin society.

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