In the Parlor with the Candlestick

ONE FALSE MOVE

By Harlan Coben

Delacorte

322 pp., $21.95

DEATH OF A SCRIPTWRITER

By M.C. Beaton

Mysterious Press

214 pp., $22

JUDAS CHILD

By Carol O'Connell

G.P. Putnam's Sons

340 pp., $24.95

One is wise-cracking, the next is cozy, the third is heartbreaking. Yet all three of these new mysteries have in common the most important quality: an excellence in plot, character, and setting that puts them at the top of their category.

Mystery lovers may have missed Myron Bolitar's entrance into the genre, because even though the books have won all the awards (the Edgar, the Shamus, and the Anthony), his outings have been in paperback. But now, with the hardcover appearance of Harlan Coben's latest, One False Move, the smart-alecky, Yoo-Hoo drinking sports agent should find the wide and appreciative audience he deserves. This is one of the funniest, yet most complex and contemplative series to appear in ages.

Myron's sidekick is Win, a rich investment counselor, whose patrician ways hide a keen ability and desire to take on bad guys. Added to the mix are Myron's assistant, Esperanza, who in an earlier career was wrestling superstar Pocahontas, and Myron's parents with whom he still lives (But, hey, in the basement). This is the stuff for a long, strong series if Coben can maintain control.

After a mysterious stint with the government, Myron became a sports rep because his own stellar career as a basketball star for the NBA ended before it began. In each novel, he gets involved with a specific sport, either when he's asked or when he sticks his nose in anyway.

In One False Move, Myron is helping the star of a new women's basketball team uncover the source of death threats. As usual, the action is steady, the dialogue so good you wouldn't miss the action, and the plot a carefully structured beauty.

The only disappointment is Coben's continued inclusion of a secretary named Big Cyndi. Big Cyndi, who also formerly wrestled (Big Chief Mama), is six-six and several hundred pounds, which gives Myron lots of room for disparaging jokes: "She raised her hands and twirled for Myron. Picture Godzilla rearing back after getting nailed by a laser gun." But Coben is too good for these cheap cracks; it's not a matter of political correctness, just style. Big Cyndi's a clich, and she takes Coben's humor where it doesn't need to go. But she is, pardon the expression, a small matter in an otherwise superb book.

Because this series is so much stronger if you read Coben's books in order, here they are: "Deal Breaker" involves a football star; "Drop Shot" is set in the tennis world; in "Fade Away," my favorite, Myron confronts his own ghosts about basketball; and "Back Spin" gives Myron lots of chances to make wisecracks about golfers. (Each is a Dell paperback, $4.95.)

For a series that continues to delight with style and freshness, look to Lochdubh, that bucolic Scottish Highlands village where author M.C. Beaton flings poor old peace-seeking village policeman Hamish Macbeth into one murder after another.

It's hard to believe that our laconic lad is up to his 14th outing in Death of a Scriptwriter. After all, all the affable, lazy fish-poaching policeman wants to do is keep things quiet, avoid promotion, and maybe - just maybe - get back together with his aristocratic girlfriend, Priscilla.

But when a third-rate TV crew wants to make a series featuring characters from the books of a pompous local author, it's only natural that trouble, and murder, will follow. Of course, Hamish is again underestimated before he solves the murder of the thoroughly obnoxious scriptwriter.

Should this series continue to work? Perhaps not. Does it? Absolutely - with charm, style, wit, and perception. Beaton allows her villagers to be characters, but not clichs. As light, cozy village mystery series go, this is one of the finest. (And don't forget: Beaton is also author of the equally enjoyable series featuring grouchy, vulnerable Agatha Raisin, whose transition from city career woman to village lady has been anything but smooth.)

One of the most spectacular novels - not just mysteries - this year is the dazzling Judas Child. Carol O'Connell already has received well-deserved praise for her intriguing series featuring former street child Mallory ("Mallory's Oracle," etc.). But in a departure that tops even the Mallory series, O'Connell's latest displays a talent that continues to expand and amaze.

"Judas Child" is as compulsively page-turning as any novel in years. Days before Christmas, two 10-year-old girls disappear. One is Gwen, the overly protected daughter of the state's lieutenant governor. The other, Sadie, is a sheer force of nature whose love of horror movies makes her an unsuitable, and irresistible, best friend.

But there's a terrible pattern at work. Over the years, other little girls in the town have disappeared. One, the "Judas Child" used to lure her best friend, is killed immediately. The other girl, the true target, is found murdered on Christmas morning. Fifteen years ago, that victim was the twin sister of Rouge Kendall, now a police officer called upon to investigate this new horror.

Woven into the story is an entire cast of believable, quirky, complex characters, from a horribly scarred young woman with her own motives for investigating the crime, to an imprisoned priest who was convicted (rightly? wrongly?) for the Kendall murder. The little girls are given real personalities, irritating and endearing. Moving among them all is Rouge, who confronts his own and others' ideas of forgiveness, revenge, justice, and resolution.

As the unbearable tension mounts, it's hard to imagine any reader being able to - there's just no other way to say it - put the book down. And then, just when you're sitting there, emotionally exhausted, O'Connell throws in yet another surprise at the end.

* Michele Ross is a freelance writer based in Decatur, Ga.

Sports By Day, Death BY NIght

The cemetery overlooked a schoolyard. Myron pushed at the loose dirt with the toe of his Rockport. There was no stone here yet, just a metal marker holding a plain index card.... So why was he here? Because a murderer would be coming soon.... Myron heard footsteps coming up from behind him.... When they stopped, Myron did not turn around. "You killed her," Myron said. "Yes." A block of ice melted in Myron's stomach. "Do you feel better now?" The killer's tone caressed the back of Myron's neck with a cold, bloodless hand. "The question is, Myron, do you?"

- From 'One False Move,' by Harlan Coben

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