No mystery to their comic appeal

Murder is no laughing matter - usually

NICE TRY By Shane Maloney Arcade 320 pp., $23.95

THE DEADER THE BETTER By G.M. Ford Avon Twilight 384 pp., $22

MURDER@MAGGODY.COM By Joan Hess Simon & Schuster 256 pp., $22

Lack of refinement aside, a trio of goofy mysteries coming out this spring makes for a raucously fun bunch.

Australian author Shane Maloney has, by far, the funniest entry. Nice Try, his third book, is positively plump with one-liners. The hero, Murray Whelan, is a man who knows his limits. A middle-aged political aide, he has no hidden arsenal of crime-solving trinkets. Doesn't own a gun. And certainly couldn't muscle down a bad guy.

In fact, among his main concerns are quitting smoking and pedaling off some love handles. His only real sleuthing skill might be running off at the mouth.

This time, he gets badgered off his exercise bike to help the city of Melbourne, Australia, win a bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games.

His job? Convince an Aboriginal activist not to sully the visiting Olympic committee's impression by raising the specter of Australia's racial crimes. There's a lot at stake: If the bid fails, it could mean the downfall of the ruling Labour Party.

It's touchy, but not deadly - until a promising Aboriginal athlete turns up dead, Murray ticks off an ex-weightlifter with an intellect inversely proportionate to the size of his biceps, a member of the Olympic committee goes missing, and on and on. When Whelan's not getting tossed in dumpsters, panting after a female doctor, or waffling about his cigarette habit, he's piecing together a mystery that dates back to some hushed-up dealings at the 1956 Olympics - hosted in Melbourne, Australia.

In The Deader the Better, G.M. Ford's hero is also pretty rough around the edges. Leo Waterman is not the best communicator. He's a guy's guy. But his desire to make sure good wins out no matter what the consequences is unimpeachable.

After the first 30 raunchy pages, "The Deader the Better" is classic catch-the-bad-guy-stuff with sidekicks, gadgets, and all the trappings, including some nasty villains.

Leo and his girlfriend, Rebecca, stop by to visit friends who are trying to start a fishing-guide business in a fading timber town in Washington State. J.D. and Claudia are convinced the locals are out to get them and snuff out their plans.

When their Christmas gifts are sent back, Leo and Rebecca return to find their friends' cabin shot up and burned. Claudia has disappeared, and J.D. has been killed in a car accident. As Leo starts prying - as only a nosy detective can - he gets the locals stirred up like a flock of fussy hens.

Ford keeps the bad guys shrouded until the book's last quarter when it comes down to how to expose them. That's when Leo enlists help from a mismatched group of morally questionable folk. Wiretapping and sharpshooting skills aside, they'd give the Three Stooges some competition.

Joan Hess's is her 12th book set in Maggody, Arkansas (pop. 755). This book belongs not to the mystery, but to the town's cast of squirrely residents, who steal the show.

Arly Hanks is the chief of police. And she smells trouble when the town gets Internet access. Sure, the Web gets the locals out of their easy chairs - for and against - but along come some new folks, too. Among them, a computer whiz hired to teach classes; Gwynnie, a doe-eyed relative of a local; and Lazarus, a scruffy biker of unknown origin. Everything comes unglued when Gwynnie turns up dead. Of course, that's no way for a town or a Web site to host a visitor. All three authors tend to err on the side of vulgarity, but their characters are so affable and their plots so zanny that there's no mystery to their popularity.

*Kristina Lanier is a freelance writer in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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