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Mystery and intrigue in print

By Yvonne ZippStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 1999



BOSTON

JACK, KNAVE AND FOOL By Bruce Alexander G.P. Putnam's Sons 279 pp., $22.95

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THE APE WHO GUARDS THE BALANCE By Elizabeth Peters Avon 376 pp., $24

THE STARGAZEY By Martha Grimes Henry Holt 354 pp., $25

MALICE IN MINIATURE By Jeanne Dams Walker 228 pp., $22.95

London: a shadowy, foggy old city populated by so many murderers, thieves, and general ne'er-do-wells a bobby couldn't swing a truncheon without knocking three out of the trees.

At least, that's what the city looks like if you take a walk through the mystery section of any bookstore. Ever since Wilkie Collins created the genre in the 1800s, the British capital has been the mystery capital as well.

Maybe it's the weather - all that moody atmosphere just begging to be put to good use. But every year, dozens of descendants of Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, and Roderick Alleyn rise from their pages to do battle with legions of evildoers. At this point, there are so many detectives, sidekicks, and murderers peopling England, it's a wonder their weight hasn't sunk the British Isles

beneath the sea.

The industry that made Scotland Yard a household name in Kalamazoo is showing no signs of slowing. This season's crime spree finds four veterans doing their bit to uphold the honor of the kingdom - and get home for afternoon tea.

It's elementary

In one 18th-century courtroom, justice really was blind. Sir John Fielding was a magistrate who, with his brother Henry (author of "Tom Jones"), helped create the city's first police force, the Bow Street Runners. Author Bruce Alexander has resurrected the Blind Beak of Bow Street and 1760s London with sure-handed writing and a wonderful attention to detail. In Jack, Knave, and Fool, the fifth book in the series, Sir John and his assistant Jeremy Proctor are trying to solve two very different deaths: the demise of Lord Laningham at a public concert and the disappearance of a, shall we say, less-than-honest pawnbroker. As teenage orphan Jeremy bustles about the city collecting clues and allowing fugitives to escape, he serves as the reader's eyes as well as Sir John's, capturing the flavor of life in old London.

Another formidable historical detective is also back in fine form. Amelia Peabody, parasol in hand and archaeologist-husband by her side, continues to charm in her 10th expedition. In The Ape Who Guards the Balance, Peabody takes up the suffragist cause - before the theft of antiquities sends her to Egypt. Criminology's gain is women's rights' loss, since the detective and her family could probably liberate a small country by sheer force of will.

By now, the turn-of-the-century sleuth has been in the business so long that her son has gotten old enough to muscle in on the adventures. This is all to the good, since Ramses looks set to give Indiana Jones a run for his fedora (although a few readers may feel disgruntled about Peabody sharing the spotlight with the younger set). Suspense has always played second chair to the Peabody clan's abundant wit and daring, but for those who like their mystery with a dash of romance, Elizabeth Peters's series is hard to beat.

An overabundance of charm unfortunately crowds out logic in the latest Richard Jury novel, The Stargazey, by Martha Grimes.

The Scotland Yard superintendent is another longtime sleuth who shows no sign of hanging up his magnifying glass. This, his 15th caper, has Jury falling under the spell of that old potboiler staple: the mysterious blonde. An unfortunate prologue gives more than a little of the plot away - it involves stolen art and the aforementioned lady.

Happily, Grimes trots out her usual assortment of endearingly eccentric English characters to help while away the chapters. The cast is delightfully daffy, especially amateur sleuth Melrose Plant, who has more than a touch of Wimsey (Lord Peter, that is). And Grimes's dryly funny observations include terrific sendups of the avant-garde art world and gentlemen's clubs, in this case, the aptly named Boring's.

For those looking for a cozy village murder, may we introduce Dorothy Martin, transplanted American, newlywed, and occasional sleuth. With her feathery hats and penchant for playing the grandmotherly busybody, Ms. Martin could be Miss Marple's distant cousin. Instead of knitting, Martin takes up miniatures in an effort to clear a friend suspected of stealing a valuable doll's tea set from a local museum. But the problem doesn't stay small for long - Martin soon finds herself with two life-size corpses on her hands. Jeanne Dams gives Martin a healthy dose of common sense and humor, and Murder in Miniature makes for a comfy, if not overly gripping, mystery.

Interestingly, at least three of these authors are American. (Bruce Alexander is a pen name, and could be Chilean or Norwegian, for all we know.) With writers on both sides of the Atlantic scribbling away, the sun may never set on the British mystery empire.

*Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor's staff.