K IS FOR KILLER, by Sue Grafton (Henry Holt & Co., 285 pp., $22.95). Fans who keep tabs on the do-it-myself Kinsey Millhone know from the start that she will find out how Lorna Kepler ended up dead on the floor of a bungalow.
As usual, Sue Grafton plots Kinsey's tortuous path with believable characters whose ominous secrets lurk beneath mannered exteriors. Among them: the DJ and his dog, the beauty-school dropout, the water czar, and Lorna's neglected elder sisters. Most intriguing is the victim herself, a part-time receptionist and insomniac who turned to prostitution after dark and invested in CDs.
Grafton is at her best when she takes Kinsey, complete with her black all-purpose dress, down Lorna's trail. Kinsey eerily shifts into a denizen of the night and finds herself rubbing shoulders with Lorna's dangerous friends. The showdown is bit anticlimactic, but the rest makes ``K is for Killer'' worth the price.
FINE LINES, by Jim Lehrer (Random House, 207 pp., $20). One-eyed Mack, lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, is the elected official we all wish we had. He's self-effacing and wise. He may have gotten carried away while giving the keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention, but at least he regrets it. And although the state turns to him for salvation when four state legislators die within 48 hours, he never exploits the tragedies.
The murders are a real stumper: Homicide doesn't happen very often in Oklahoma to begin with, and few characters seem downright dishonest. Usual suspects such as the mob and the drug cartel don't even exist within state lines - though flustered Governor Buffalo Joe briefly wonders if OPEC could be at the bottom of it. He gratefully leaves the manhunt to Mack and C. Harry Hayes, director of OBI (Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, what else?).
Throughout, Jim Lehrer, co-anchor of PBS's ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,'' has fun. He trades gore for down-home philosophy, and action for honest talk. Trusty Mack does sort out some villains and some motives, but he's more interested in the ``fine lines'' of morality.
WALKING SHADOW, by Robert B. Parker (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 270 pp., $19.95). Private detective Spenser is as tough as ever - and he'd better be, since the murder of actor Craig Sampson plants him in the cross hairs of both Port City's gang boss Lonnie Wu and Spenser's would-be lover Jocelyn Colby.
Unfortunately, Spenser doesn't find the killer's trail until the last 50 pages. This tactic would be more suspenseful if he didn't sound so frustrated in the first 200, leaving the reader just as impatient as he is.
Parker leaves room for comments on multicultural society, which gives the book a worthwhile subtext. Spenser has seen too much to buy naive academic theories on ethnicity and gender, though he and his friends make up a rough alternative model of political correctness. Parker skews the PC labels of perpetrator and victim, too; this makes for an unusual but didactic ending.