A mystery novel notable for its masterful characterizations

Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood. New York: Viking. 279 pp. $15.95. A handsome, broad-shouldered, dark-haired man in a wheelchair turns up on the doorstep of a gentle, well-to-do, but very lonely widow who has been pining away with grief in her beautiful home in the English countryside. Undoubtedly, his manner is extravagant. Perhaps, as Mrs. Blunt conjectures, it has something to do with his being Irish.

Corrigan (who has apparently lost his first name as well as the use of his legs) immediately begins to spout poetry, then launches into a vivid description of his crusade to bring the joys of literature to other disabled people. He presumes an instant spiritual kinship with Mrs. Blunt, then apologizes (still more extravagantly) for his presumption. ``This whole subject of books and reading is a dangerous one for me. I should try to avoid it. I feel too violently about it,'' he explains. Reading, he info rms her, is ``the only world where you can find infinity within the finite.''

Mrs. Blunt's housekeeper is understandably suspicious. So, too, is Mrs. Blunt's married daughter, Nadine Conroy, who has been avoiding her widowed mother and feeling guilty about it.

It is interesting to imagine what some other contemporary British women novelists might have made of this. Muriel Spark might have imbued the characters and events with mythic or Biblical significance. Iris Murdoch would perhaps have plumbed their bottomless psychological depths. Bernice Rubens would most likely have fashioned these elements into a bitingly cynical black comedy. But Caroline Blackwood has managed to resist these temptations and has achieved in this, her latest novel, a distinctive and c ompelling voice of her own. She shows herself to be a shrewd, yet deeply sympathetic, observer, not only of human motivations, but also of the crippling emotional traps in which people all too often seem to find themselves.

Blackwood's sensitivity and artistic tact are most evident in her character portrayal. Mrs. Blunt, the widow, who might so easily have been depicted as a foolish old lady, becomes in Blackwood's hands something far more interesting: an aging woman in retreat from life who gradually realizes she is still capable of growth and enjoyment. Nadine, who might have been etched in acid as the proverbially self-absorbed and uncaring ``thankless child,'' is revealed as a beleaguered woman imprisoned by her own ti midity and seeming coldness.

Justin, the monumentally insensitive husband she placates, is drawn with less sympathy. But the malice animating this portrayal is horrifically funny: ``I'm sorry darling,'' he says, having just accused his sobbing wife of neglecting her filial duties, ``I shouldn't have bullied you. It's none of my business how badly you treat your mother.''

Nadine's loyal friend, a beautiful but self-destructive model named Sabrina, reports back to her on Mrs. Blunt's new companion. Sabrina thinks Corrigan's attentions are having a beneficial effect on Nadine's mother. But poor Nadine is appalled by the very thought of this ``flirtatious cripple.''

Who, indeed, is Corrigan, and what is he really up to? Obviously, he is not what he seems, except insofar as he seems very obviously a con artist. Blackwood's storytelling maintains the suspense through every shift of a deftly constructed but eminently believable plot. The writing is taut, spare, and fast-paced, but the story is rich enough to make this a substantial and satisfying novel. And it is a rare novelist indeed whose portrait of the strains of a mother-daughter relationship proves even more fa scinating than her portrait of the mysterious Corrigan.

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