Sometimes it seems that everybody and his plumber is writing a mystery novel. These budding Dashiell Hammetts and Agatha Christies churn out a steady slew of books, and while a few of them are gems, most are pure dross. Writing a good mystery, it turns out, is harder than it looks. That's why it's so refreshing to read books written not by eager newcomers, but by masters of the game.
PAPER DOLL, by Robert B. Parker (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 223 pp., $19.95). This is Robert Parker's 20th Spenser novel and, though not one of the best in the series, it is engaging nevertheless. In this tale, private-eye Spenser is hired to track down the killer of Olivia Nelson, a Boston Brahmin who, he soon discovers, was not all she seemed to be. Spenser's investigation takes him out of his usual Boston haunts to a small town in South Carolina (a fictional version of Aiken) where the answer to the riddl e of Olivia's past is.
Along the way, Spenser gets help not only from the usual cast of characters - such as his girlfriend Susan Silverman - but also from a newcomer, detective Lee Farrell. The most interesting passages in this book, as usual, are devoted to the clothes Spenser wears and the meals he cooks. Even if you don't know what fiddle-head ferns are, you'll probably appreciate this laconically written and well-plotted adventure.
DON'T ASK, by Donald E. Westlake (The Mysterious Press, 327 pp., $18.95). "Don't Ask" shows another veteran writer in fine form. The novel features Donald Westlake's usual band of bungling burglars. This time out, they're hired to steal a bone - an ancient saint's relic, actually - that will determine who gets the United Nations General Assembly seat held by a central European state that no longer exists.
As in Westlake's other novels, the burglars at first succeed in getting the loot with an elaborately planned heist. But owing to a last-minute mishap, both the bone and the ring-leader, John Dortmunder, are captured. From there it's a nonstop, breathless chase to the end as the two sides try to steal and resteal the bone from each other. Not only is this funny stuff, it's also a wry commentary on world events today.
`J' IS FOR JUDGMENT, by Sue Grafton (Henry Holt and Co., 288 pp., $21.95). Sue Grafton's latest thriller is a below-par performance. But even below-par Sue Grafton isn't bad. In " `J' is for Judgment," gumshoe Kinsey Millhone is hired by an insurance company to locate Wendell Jaffe, a businessman who had disappeared after a real-estate deal gone sour. As she pursues Jaffe from Mexico to California, the orphaned Kinsey has a bittersweet meeting with her long-lost relatives. A little bit of this goes a lon g way.
BLUE HEARTS, by Jim Lehrer (Random House, 214 pp., $20). TV newsman Jim Lehrer's current novel is almost a two-character play starring Charles Avenue Henderson, a retired CIA spook who runs a bed-and-breakfast in West Virginia, and Bruce Conn Clark, a former secretary of state who remains a powerful figure in Washington. Before long, Clark is trying to assassinate Henderson - a mystery that provides a sturdy plot on which to hang the author's nice observations of life among Washington movers-and-shakers.
For example, there's a delicious moment when Clark goes to a dinner party and encounters Jonathan Perry, "a lightweight sociology professor of no special talent or accomplishment who owned and edited the magazine The New World because his wife was a shoe-company heiress who bought it for him." Hmmmmm, that wouldn't be Martin Peretz, publisher of The New Republic, would it?