by carol o'connell
g.p. Putnam's Sons
374 pp., $24.95
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRIET
By Dorothy Cannell
274 pp., $21.95
Everyone knows the lady never really gets sawed in half. Or as New York cop Kathleen Mallory puts it, "Magic's a cheat."
Which is why when a magician dies on live TV during an illusion gone horribly wrong, she refuses to dismiss it as an accident.
Stalking a group of elderly illusionists, Mallory (aka Don't-call-me-Kathy) uncovers a suspicious death from World War II that had also been dismissed as an accident. Solving the 50-year-old murder, she reasons, might be the way to learn who is destroying the septuagenarian prestidigitators. For this, she needs the help of Malakhai, an illusionist of questionable sanity whose greatest trick ever was resurrecting the ghost of his dead wife with the help of memory, perfume, and floating cards. O'Connell, who was an artist before trading paintbrush for pen, packs "Shell Game" with visual spectacles from New York's Thanksgiving Day parade to the elaborate illusions.
O'Connell's sure writing and sense of suspense never falter. However, her vivid images make the deaths more than a little stom ach-churning.
Dorothy Cannell is a master of the tea-cosy mystery - served with lots of daffy characters, domestic misunderstandings, and a dollop of murder.
Ellie Haskell, intrepid interior designer and mother of twins, and her dashing husband, Ben, both keep getting dragged into murders - usually as a result of their eccentric family. "The Trouble With Harriet" finds Ellie and Ben on the eve of a French getaway. A Gypsy prophecy (somewhat of a rarity in the English village of Chitterton Falls) is Ellie's first clue that she may be unpacking her bags. The second is when her world-wandering father - whom she hasn't seen since she was 17 - shows up bearing the ashes of his lost love, Harriet.
Harriet's relatives are on their way to claim her remains, but with a nod to Alfred Hitchcock's film, "The Trouble With Harry," the urn just won't stay put. As she and Ben chase it all over town Ellie begins to wonder just what happened to Harriet.
A cozy visit with the Haskell clan is never a waste of time, but "The Trouble With Harriet" lacks some of the verve and wit of Cannell's best.
*Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society