In the parlor ... with a giggle

By

LAST DITCH By G.M. Ford Avon Books 280 pp., $22

MURDER IN HAWAII By Steve Allen Kensington Books 316 pp., $22

Put the latest crop of comic mystery heroes in a room together, and someone will surely get knocked flat. Not by a candlestick, mind you, but by the snappy one-liners zinging around like a manic rubber ball.

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A more affable - or candid - group of protagonists can't be found. And they're refreshingly real. There's not a building- leaping, window-crashing, gadget-wielding superman in the bunch. These three picks from the comic mystery genre have more bumble than bite, but most of all they're just eye-crinkling, smile-tugging fun.

G.M. Ford bursts off the blocks with Last Ditch, the fifth in his Leo Waterman series. The saucy private eye prowls the city of Seattle armed with little more than his wit and irrepressible nosiness.

"Last Ditch" dumps Leo into a tangle of intrigue that lay hibernating for three decades. And when the gumshoe takes a jab at the sleeping beast, it turns nasty.

The whole puzzle spills out abruptly when Leo - doing a little yard work at his childhood home - unearths the bones of Peerless Price, a whistle-blowing columnist whose vigilante-style squawking ended with his mysterious disappearance.

It might have been just a case of some old bones, but each thread leads back to Leo's late father - a prominent city official - who had several reasons to permanently stopper the inflammatory Price.

Leo gets reeled into a crusade to exonerate his unscrupulous dad. In the process, he uncovers a long-buried minefield of shady dealings - municipal corruption, infidelity, immigrant smuggling, a host of coverups, and a gay bar in an era that didn't list them in the phone book.

Ford steers these plot lines expertly. Before you know it, he sends you scrambling through the finish line disheveled, out of breath, and grinning.

The second book comes from the pen of modern-day renaissance man Steve Allen. The author, composer, actor, and comedian casts himself and his real-life wife, actress Jayne Meadows, as amateur detectives in Murder in Hawaii.

He gives the story a backdrop familiar to him - the set of a television series, "Hawaiian Wave," peopled with pampered celebrities and show-biz execs.

The series' star, Billy Markham, the son of longtime friends, calls them in a panic - his parents can't make their guest spot on the next episode. Can the Allen's come down and do the show? On top of that, he fears he's being stalked.

The Allens oblige, but as soon as they turn up, so do the bodies. They uncover more problems than just learning their lines - a terrorized star, a bankrupt socialite, blackmail, and two mysterious deaths.

It's fluffy fare and Allen unabashedly shuffles the plot along. These characters trip all over themselves to divulge key bits of information to the Allens. A looser-tongued bunch you won't find. But if you can suspend your disbelief, the story has a winning charm. Steve and Jayne are a classy pair. And the writing is gentle. There's little gore or coarse language, and Allen's character opts for mineral water in the midst of hard-drinking colleagues.

The third comic whodunit, Stiff, is the second book from award-winning Australian author Shane Maloney. He's building a series around Murray Whelan, a political aide who doesn't take anything too seriously - least of all himself.

The plot itself isn't Pulitzer material - it's your basic "unassuming layman gets reluctantly propelled into detective work, solves mystery" story. This one starts out with the discovery of a frozen corpse in the freezer of a meat-packing plant. Hardly tasteful. And the body leads to a hornet's nest of corruption, framings, union antics, and ethnic quarrels.

It's Whelan's just-a-regular-guy misadventures that make the book such a worthwhile read. It's impossible not to enjoy a character who gets his head stuck in the roof while reinsulating, scrapes his face up, and then blames it - deadpan - on an altercation with an ornery possum.

You can't go wrong with any of these farcical meanderings. Just remember, though, before you crack a spine, that none was intended to be a mind-bender. But that's sometimes what makes for the best entertainment.

*Kristina Lanier is on the Monitor staff.

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