Spenser, a hearse, Japan, last Morse

Mysteries Of Summer

May 21, 2000|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

After a long day of exchanges with co-workers, few pleasures can match the combined satisfactions of a comfortable chair, a good light, a snack or drink within reach, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.

Thanks to the indefatigable industry of mystery writers, and the inexhaustible optimism of their publishers, whole forests fall to pulp to allow readers to plunge vicariously into darkness. The dozens produced each year offer all imaginable categories -- historical settings, exotic locales, English maiden ladies, West Coast tough guys -- with veteran writers adding another notch to a series and tyros imitating previous successes. Some recent additions to the genre:

Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels have become smoothly machined products. The latest, "Hugger Mugger" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 307 pages, $23.95), takes the private investigator out of Boston to Three Fillies Stable in Georgia, where a prize thoroughbred, Hugger Mugger, is threatened as the latest victim of a series of attacks on horses.

Parker supplies all the familiar conventions: the short, punchy sentences, the Spenserian wisecracks, the literary allusions (though fewer than formerly), enthusiastic sex with Susan Silverman -- it's a smooth read. And yet, it seems thin. Previous Spenser novels put the detective and his intimates under serious threat, but this novel seems more like going through the motions. There is one ominous overtone: Spenser, who used to describe the meals he cooked for himself, spends much of his time in this novel eating doughnuts. This can't come out well.

Another wisecracking detective turns up in Tim Cockey's "The Hearse You Came in On" (Hyperion, 308 pages, $22.95). Hitchcock Sewell is a Baltimore undertaker, proprietor, with his aunt, of a funeral parlor in Fells Point. When a young woman turns up to order her own funeral, and then proves to be not the person she purports to be, he sticks his nose into other people's business. That business turns out to involve a pornographic video that figures in blackmail and political corruption, as well as homicide.

"The Hearse You Came in On" is an engaging book, though some readers may find that Cockey's slangy first-person narrator tries to carry too much of the burden and that the plot, though convoluted, lacks weight.

Baltimore's own Sujata Massey has produced another mystery in her series about Japanese-American Rei Shimura, "The Floating Girl" (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $24). Each of these novels allows Massey to explore some aspect of Japanese culture. Just as Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small series allowed the author to instruct the reader in Judaism, Massey's accounts of Rei Shimura's escapades allows the reader to absorb instruction about an unfamilliar culture in a painless fictional form.

"The Floating Girl" takes the reader into the world of Japanese animation, with comic books connected to strip joints and the Japanese mob. As assured in this milieu as she was previously with flower arranging in "The Flower Master," Massey exposes a murderer while developing Rei's career in Japan.

Rei now has a Japanese boyfriend from a prominent family, Takeo Kayama. We are invited to believe that their time in bed is deeply satisfying, as we are with Spenser and Susan Silverman, though not everyone may be persuaded.

The accomplished Anne Perry takes the reader into Victorian England in "Half Moon Street" (Ballantine, 312 pages, $25), another of her novels featuring Superintendent Thomas Pitt and his family. While the mystery focuses on the body of a photographer dressed in a green velvet gown, posed in a parody of Ophelia's death in "Hamlet," and cast adrift on the Thames, the substance of the book focuses on two women, Pitt's mother-in-law, Caroline Fielding, and Caroline's mother-in-law, Mrs. Ellison. The two women struggle for domestic supremacy, their lives shadowed by an ugly secret that only gradually comes into the light.

Through these characters, Perry presents, in intensely personal terms, what the Victorians called the Woman Question. Her narrative is fluid, and her prose suggests a period atmosphere without lapsing into pastiche. One might wish, however, that she had moderated the tortured interior meditations of the women; it is not necessary to belabor the point.

She does, however, give her plot a good sharp twist at the end.

The reader who remembers Dashiell Hammett's nameless detective in the Continental Op stories will discover familiar territory in Bill Pronzini's "Crazybone" (Carroll & Graf, 208 pages, $23). This is the latest in Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" series, and the anonymous narrator, an older man for whom this career is wearing a bit thin, shoulders his world-weary way through a genteel California town where a widow is refusing to claim a $50,000 benefit due her in life insurance after her husband's death. The reasons turn out to be gratifyingly ugly, and Bill Pronzini is a deft man with a plot and a sentence.

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