The truth is crueler than fiction

July 12, 1998|By Elsbeth Bothe | Elsbeth Bothe,Special to the sun

Where are the more arresting characters, the most plausible plots?

A California news reporter, Irene, whose past appearances include catching the culprits who kidnapped her policeman fiance and going after a death-dealing poison-penner to stem her own demise, now finds herself in the midst of another personal crisis when Aunt Briana gets killed in a hit-and-run accident and she becomes a suspect for inheriting Briana's paltry estate. Solving that case calls for finding her cousin, Briana's illegitimate son, Travis, who is in danger from the killers of his wealthy-despite-illiterate father, Arthur, who, years earlier, was a suspect in the murder of his much-older, rich wife, whose relatives, the DeMonts, would have motive to kill the lot of them. ++ Irene must detect the culprits to save herself and Travis, and posthumously exonorate Arthur before everything can securely wrap up pending her next case. "Liar: An Irene Kelly Mystery," by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster, 321 pages, $23).

* A huge young man, "Big Ed," 6-foot-9 as a child of 15, wantonly murders both of his paternal grandparents. Discharged from juvenile custody, Ed leaves a psychiatrist's office pending a favorable report that will clear his record, driving away with the severed head of a teen-age girl in his car trunk. Ed is a pal of the police, but not of at least six co-eds whom he waylays on the highways around Santa Cruz to murder, dismember and rape posthumously, followed by feasting on parts of their remains. His year-long ventures culminate when he bashes his nagging mother, rapes her lifeless body, cuts out her offending larynx and grinds it up in her garbage disposal. Not quite through, he lures over Mom's best friend, kills her and cuts off her head. Then he takes off leaving the heads at home so as to identify himself as the perp. Not caught fast enough, Ed telephones and confesses his own expense to bungling detectives who decline to accept the long-distance charges. "The Co-Ed Killer: A Study of the Murders, Mutilations and Matricide of Edmund Kemper III," by Margaret Cheney, (Walker Publications, 222 pages, $8.95, paperback).

To faint-hearted fans of made-up mystery, Kemper's story could be too gruesome for relaxed recreational reading. But being true, it is bound to boast built-in verisimilitude, a cogent plot; engrossing characters; an interesting ambiance - those features, fleshed out with skillful composition, that comprise the skeleton of any worthy piece of crime writing. The new fiction appraised here will consider Mark Twain's observation that "truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't."

Serial books by women writers featuring women protagonists dominate the current crop. Irene Kelly, now married to Detective Frank Harriman, is settled by her fourth adventure in his company. But others of this genre come as close to starring in romance as mystery fiction.

Unlike Jane Marple or Jessica Fletcher, today's female sleuths usually have a signifigant man in attendance, but do not tend to emulate their macho promiscuity.

Sue Henry sets her graphic scenes in the wilds of Alaska. Her latest, "Deadfall: An Alaskan Mystery" (Avon Books, 296 pages, $22) focuses on Jessie Arnold the stalwart girlfriend of Detective Alix Jensen. (To exemplify the gender switcharound, Alix was the principal in their previous six novels.)

Jessie is a musher whose sled dogs compete in world-class competitions. Plagued by a stalker who is really trying to get revenge on Alix, Jessie and her favorite husky retreat to a vacation house on an ostensibly deserted island, thinking (the dog thinks too) to be alone and safe there.

Chases through the stunning landscape are wonderfully evocative though most are unwitting escapes from protective friends who for a lot of unjustified cat-and-mouse, run with her into the jaws of the enemy. Just in time Alix comes to the rescue for a heartwarming finale.

Michelle Spring's "Standing in the Shadows" (Ballantine Books, 287 pages, $23) is her third mystery starring P.I. Laura Principal. The scene is Cambridge, England where both Laura and her creator are academically affiliated. Though Laura can hold her own when confronted with a physical challenge, following British tradition, she relies more upon being sensitive, cerebral and smart.

This time, the problem is to probe the case of Daryll Flatt, an 11-year-old incarcerated for the murder of his foster mother. Laura beds down with her detective partner, Sonny Mendlowitz; who is mostly there to rub her back and listen. The tale is refreshingly free of superfluous suspense and incomprehensible coincidences. An informative, entertaining, well- constructed plot falls quietly and neatly into place.

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