Slapstick, raspberries, dogs, Venice

Mysteries Of Spring

May 16, 1999|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | Elsbeth L. Bothe,Special to the Sun

Internet listings of new mysteries have gone up as high as the stock in Amazon.com. There is no feasible way to cull out the best -- or the worst. Bestselling authors P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Thomas Harris, John Grisham, Tony Hillerman are excluded, though each of them will have published this season. Those included here were chosen through bumbling investigation into a random sampling.

Starting on the home front, there is Blair S. Walker's "Hidden in Plain View," (Avon Books, 229 pages, $22.) Though his bio-hype doesn't mention it, Walker's byline once regularly appeared in the Baltimore Sun. Walker's creation, Darryl Billups, works for the "Baltimore Herald," and is also an African-American who travels familiar places.

There doesn't seem reason to rename Johns Hopkins the Ida B. Wells Hospital or Rite-Aid drugstores Optimas, though it's understandable that the newspaper people be hidden behind pseudonyms. Darryl is a ready victim of editors as well as murderers.

The plot is macabre slapstick. Identity of the serial killing villain is no secret. Without spoiling such suspense as there is, she's an alluring African-American with a death list of upwardly mobile professional blacks. Suspicion of white racists is fanned with such silly devices as pasting the corpses with Confederate flag decals.

As for motive, the bad girl is simply addicted to killing, just as she is compulsive about tuning in Jerry Springer while consuming fresh squeezed orange juice and vodka. Reading this book, you may feel the need to join her.

The odd affinity between crime and cooking is exemplified in Phyllis Richmond's "Murder on the Gravy Train," (HarperCollins, 244 pages, $5.99). The writer is the Washington Post's long-time restaurant reviewer. Her fictional character, Chas Wheatley, has the same occupation.

Chas is a middle-aged divorced mother with romantic interest in men as well as food. She is ditched on a blind date with a waiter who doesn't return from a trip to the parking meter. A cabbie she hails in Washington accompanies her to dinner in Manhattan, her head on his shoulder on the return trip.

There's a daughter and ex-husband with discriminating appetites, a steak-and-potatoes feature writer boyfriend, a detective who sleuths gourmet eats. All these and many more stir into a plot that boils but never thickens after cooking through two murders, one suicide and the attempted murder of Chas who is fatally allergic to fresh akee.

Yet the gruel will be tasty to those who enjoy reading about the foibles of sophisticated dining. Among other tips, you'll discover that chocolate raspberries are excellent hiding places for miniature microphones.

One has to dig dogs or sniff at Susan Conant's mystery novels. "Evil Breeding," (Doubleday, 240 pages, $21.95) is the latest on her list bearing such titles as "Gone to the Dogs," "A New Leash on Death," Dead and Doggone." Conant's principals are dog magazine writer Holly Winter and her malamutes Rowdy and Kimi. The writing is sprinkled with such wry observations as that "the rich really are different from you and me. They can afford more dogs."

Among the very rich was Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, founder in 1927 of the legendary Morris and Essex dog shows. Holly is in the course of researching a story on the show and the people who knew Mrs. Dodge. The plot goes from breeding German shepherds to preserving a human species of genetically correct Aryans -- an idea that holds some promise but doesn't take hold. Analogies between elitist dog breeders and facism become impossible to woof down.

Lawyer John Martel, author of "The Alternate" (E.P. Dutton, 417 pages, $24.95), was a consultant for the prosecution in both the O.J.Simpson and Menendez brothers cases. Voyeurs who get impatient following real celebrity trials will be more than fulfilled with this glitzy O.J. knockoff.

Lead prosecutor Grace Harris plays Marcia Clark. Her boss, African-American district attorney Earl Field, is a roll-up of Christopher Darden and Johnny Cochran. Elliot Ashford, the accused, is a slippery celebrity charged, of course, with fatally stabbing his estranged wife. Defense lawyer Barrett "Bear" Dickson and the prosecutor vary things by falling in love. Both trials are plagued by misplaced DNA evidence, boring forensic experts, lying witnesses, reverse racism.

Alternate juror Amanda Keller, a file clerk with good legs and a schizoid brain, is determined to win fame and fortune out of her seat in the jury box. Obsessed with prosecutor Field, Amanda becomes pro-state but can't vote her convictions without getting on the regular jury which she manages by process of elimination. More murders happen. Over long by mystery book standards, "The Alternate" will be a quick study for watchers of Court TV.

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