The butler didn't. . . Memory Boy, by Victor Canning. New York: William Morrow and Co. 177 pp. $10. 95. Hand of Fate, by Michael Underwood. New York: St. Martin's Press. 220 pp.$10. 95. A Splash of Red, by Antonia Fraser. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 229 pp. $12. 95. The Seven Dreamers, by Bernard St. James. New York: Doubleday. 180 pp. $10.95 . All on a Summer's Day, by John Wainwright. New York: St. Martin's Press. 290 pp. $10.95. Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, by Ross McDonald, foreword by Eudora Welty.Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press (P.O. Box 2068, 93120).129 pp. $15. The Dark Wind, by Tony Hillerman. New York: Harper & Row. 214 pp. $12.50 Modus Operandi: An Excursion into Detective Fiction, by Robin W. Winks. Boston: David R. Godine. 120 pp. $12.50.
Fourteen-year-old Peter Courtney is embarrassed by his unusual talent for memorizing and reciting long passages of prose or poetry--hours or even weeks after he first hears them. When his gifts come to the attention of British intelligence--which desperately needs someone to pass information about double agents in their network, yet cannot permit that information to be recorded in any way--you can imagine what happens.
But in Victor Canning's ''Memory Boy'' a spy within the system finds out that Peter will be delivering incriminating evidence, and dispatches an assassin to get rid of the boy and his father, Frank.
Peter and his father, however, are already fleeing for personal reasons, and a suspenseful chase is the outcome. ''Memory Boy'' is a memorable, white-knuckle thriller, the sort you expect from a veteran like Canning.
Few people doubt that self-made millionaire Frank Wimble has murdered his wife, and that includes the jurors at his trial, the events of which take up most of Michael Underwood's ''Hand of Fate.''
Underwood takes us through the trial and into the thoughts and lives of jurors, lawyers, and judge before he explodes the book with a surprise ending.
Readers who don't like surprise endings will find ''Hand of Fate'' engaging for its scrutiny of the sometimes less-than-perfect legal system.
Lady Antonia Fraser is well-known for her biographies, ''Mary Queen of Scots'' and ''Cromwell,'' but she also writes mysteries. ''A Splash of Red'' is the third of her books to feature Jemima Shore, a TV -private eye, whose real-life avocation is the fine art of detection. In this novel, she must discover who killed her friend, Chloe Fontaine, a writer.
The list of candidates is long, for Chloe led an adventurous life. The suspects include a violent, but talented, painter; a millionaire land developer; a publisher; and a mysterious younger man.
The book's denouement is disappointing, but Fraser is a literate writer with a refined style that will carry readers to the end.
Mysteries set in the past are increasingly common, and one of the best recent examples is ''The Seven Dreamers'' by Bernard St. James, which shows off for the second time the talents of Chief Inspector Blanc.
The story takes place in early 19th-century Paris, and Blanc must solve a puzzling and gruesome case. Seven people have been found murdered, and subsequent examination proves they all were sitting in chairs, asleep, when they were killed.
Blanc's investigation is hampered by political and bureaucratic interference, and it's not until he connects a new and controversial development in medicine to the crime that he discovers the murderer.
St. James has fashioned an entertaining mystery here, and his grasp of history is sure enough, although his ending seems overly dramatic.
John Wainwright's ''All on a Summer's Day'' recounts 24 hours in the life and work of the police officers in one section of an English city.
The result is a detailed and somewhat overfull composite. Still, Wainwright weaves his material with considerable skill, and those who like to keep track of all these numerous subplots will enjoy this one.
Ross McDonald has not only entertained thousands of readers with his Lew Archer novels, but he has also inspired many of today's young writers of detective fiction. ''Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past'' is a collection of 21 small essays by McDonald. They offer an interesting, but monochromatic, picture of the man behind the books, who once said, ''I'm not Archer, but Archer is me.''
Tony Hillerman's mysteries tell us almost as much about American Indian life and ritual in the Southwest as they do about crimes perpetrated and solved in that region. His latest mystery, ''The Dark Wind,'' is no exception.
Jim Chee, a Navajo, is not as experienced as Hillerman's better-known policeman, Joe Leaphorn, but he is equally persistent. During a stake-out one night to find out who keeps vandalizing a windmill on Hopi land, he hears a plane crash nearby.
He soon wishes he hadn't. The plane belongs to smugglers, and someone has killed two of them and hijacked their shipment. Federal agents suspect Chee is involved.
While dealing with the suspicions of federal agents and the doubts of his superiors on the tribal police force, Chee unravels this complicated case. ''The Dark Wind'' is not Hillerman's best book, but it is good.
''To be serious, if not solemn, about detective fiction is beyond the bounds of most modern literary criticism,'' writes Robin W. Winks in ''Modus Operandi, '' his short and personal ''excursion into detective fiction.''
Fortunately, Winks is not solemn, but perceptive, witty, provocative, at times maddening, and very often absolutely correct in his wide-ranging observations.
What are the basic requirements of the thriller? Of what importance is formula? What is the cultural importance of mysteries? And, above all, why are so many readers attracted to detective fiction? These are but a few of the questions Winks addresses. His book is not an academic treatise but a lively and entertaining study by a literate and intelligent writer. Anyone with a serious interest in detective fiction should feel deprived not to read it.