Three top mystery writers try new twists

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Exit Lines, by Reginald Hill. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 262 pp. $13.95. Help the Poor Struggler, by Martha Grimes. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 225 pp. $15.95. Live Bait, by Ted Wood. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 212 pp. $12.95. Some changes in the usual formulas bring unanticipated freshness to the latest mystery novels of three consistently excellent writers.

In Reginald Hill's Exit Lines, his mid-Yorkshire detectives, Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, are separated by Dalziel's temporary suspension from duty. The dying words of an old man run over by a car make Dalziel the prime suspect, and Pascoe is left in charge of the investigation. With the help of two new, young subordinates, Pascoe also investigates the murders of two other elderly men that occurred the same night. Dalziel, who always has a few tricks up his sleeve, blusters and connives his way through the novel in his usual fashion. His association with a notorious bookie scandalizes friends and enemies alike and puzzles his partner, Peter Pascoe.

Pascoe is left alone on the home front as well, his wife, Ellie, having gone to her parents' home for a few days, taking baby daughter Rose with her. Ellie's father is showing signs of senility, and she must help her mother to cope with the situation.

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Besides the expected intriguing plot and excellent characterizations, Hill has compassionately handled a relevant social issue, the care of the elderly. As always in a Reginald Hill novel, the characters come to life, and Dalziel and Pascoe, in their ninth appearance, continue to surprise and delight the reader.

In Help the Poor Struggler, Martha Grimes's sixth mystery novel, she has altered her formula slightly with changes in characterization and the inclusion of some Gothic elements.

Grimes often has children as peripheral characters in her novels; in her latest, a child is one of the central characters. Lady Jessica Allan-Ashcroft is a 10-year-old orphaned heiress who lives in a mansion on the edge of Dartmoor with her playboy uncle and her dog, Henry. Jessica's unusual household comes to the attention of superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard and detective chief superintendent Brian Macalvie of the Devon-Cornwall Constabulary during their investigation of the murders of thre e other local children.

Jury is Grimes's attractive hero, and Macalvie, a colorful new character, is Jury's professional and romantic rival. Jury's associate, the hypochondriac Sergeant Wiggins, and his friend, amateur sleuth Melrose Plant, join him in Devon. As a welcome change of pace for both Plant and the reader, his odious Aunt Agatha has remained at home.

There are Gothic elements in this novel not usually found in a Martha Grimes novel -- the brooding atmosphere of Dartmoor, a gloomy mansion, a past tragedy, family skeletons, and damsels in distress. Grimes succeeds in combining these elements with her usual interesting characters, an intriguing plot, and her distinctive blend of humor and compassion. It's a winning combination.

In his third mystery novel, Live Bait, Ted Wood has moved the action from the tiny Ontario resort town of Murphy's Harbor, where Reid Bennett is the one-man police force, to Reid's former home, Toronto, where he and his police dog, Sam, are spending their vacation. Reid and Sam are staying with Reid's divorced sister and her two young children while they moonlight for a security firm whose employees are being attacked.

Reid's undercover job brings him up against the Chinese underworld, as well as the Toronto police, and involves him romantically with a beautiful Chinese woman. He also meets an attractive Toronto policewoman, who might appear in future novels.

It's shrewd of Wood to set this exciting and suspenseful novel in Toronto instead of Murphy's Harbor. It allows him to introduce some new characters and to share more information about Reid's character and past experiences with the Toronto police force and in Vietnam. In his next novel, Murphy's Harbor will likely seem more attractive after the change of scene.

Jane Stewart Spitzer reviews popular fiction for the Monitor.

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