IF YOU WANT to praise a mystery writer
these days, you mention P. D. James. In separate pre-publication reviews, her name is invoked in accolades for two British women mystery novelists--Ruth Rendell and B.M. Gill. Rendell is a seasoned writer of much-admired psychological novels and of the Inspector Wexford police investigations. Gill has achieved acclaim with only her second novel.
There are those of us who feel James did her best work before the mainstream critics discovered her with the best-selling Innocent Blood. One must admit to a perverse wish that Rendell and Gill escape the attention of literary critics.
Death Notes (Pantheon, $9.95) brings back Inspector Wexford in another superb Rendell, reinforcing her position as one of the best practitioners in the mystery field. Sir Manuel Camargue, the greatest flute player of his day, is to marry a young woman who could be his granddaughter, when he slips into an icy pond while walking his dog.
It may well have been an accident. But then there is the aborted will that would have cut off his long-lost daughter. Wexford, a delightful human being, goes to California to trace the daughter. Rendell's characters have grown throughout the series, and in Death Notes Wexford's recently-remarried deputy and television star daughter make featured appearances.
If you want to catch up on Rendell's earlier novels, Bantam Books recently has published four of them in paperback editions at $1.95 and $2.50.
In Suspect (Scribners, $9.95), B.M. Gill fulfills the promise of her debut last year with Death Drop.
She writes with compassion and psychological insight while spinning out the suspense until a frightening denouement. Suspect involves the rape-murders of members of the medical staff of a hospital. The victims--a surgical assistant, a student nurse, and an anesthetist-- are linked to Dr. Paul McKendrick, a neuro-surgeon, who loses both his daughter and mistress to the killer.
Here is the scene as the bereaving Dr. McKendrick visits a couple who are old friends: "She and her husband sat together on the sofa. In an unthinking moment she rested her head against his shoulder and then saw Paul's glance and moved away. Sorry, she apologizes silently, sorry."
The killer may be a patient's bitter relative who feels McKendrick botched an operation. Or it may may be a sex sadist. Gill has a stunning surprise for her readers.
In recent years, novelist Howard Fast has been doing his best writing in a mystery series featuring a Nisei police detective in Beverly Hills, California. Writing under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham, Fast has produced a trio of first-rate police procedurals with an original, appealing sleuth in Masao Masuto, who practices Zen, raises roses, and has a wife who participates in a women's consciousness- raising group. This he accepts with affectionate bafflement.
The Case of the Sliding Pool (Delacorte, $10.95), the fourth Masuto outing, may be the best of the series with the detective involved in a murder-in-retrospect investigation.
It begins as heavy rains in Beverly Hills set off ground slides imperiling the luxurious homes perched on the canyon walls. A swimming pool collapses and slips, exposing the skeleton of a man buried 30 years earlier when the house was built.
Before Masuto can identify the victim, the murderer strikes swiftly and ruthlessly to preserve the long-buried secret. The retired contractor and the crew foreman and his wife are chopped down by karate blows. Masuto tenaciously pursues clues that link the murder to a bank embezzlement three decades earlier. His theories, which seem so brilliant and ingenious, are knocked down one by one until, finally, he meets the coldly efficient killer in a chilling hand-to-hand karate combat in a club gym.
One might quibble about the long reach of coincidence (a wealthy kinsman of Masuto sets up the confrontation and takes a personal revenge after years of Oriental patience). But that doesn't arise until the last page is turned.
It's such an ingenious plot that you want to believe. And Betty Suyker almost pulls it off in her first mystery, Death Scene (St. Martin's, $10.95). Her story moves along briskly and entertainingly until she settles for an unlikely suspect with a motive that even a psychiatrist would find difficult to explain.
But enjoy while you can, for Death Scene offers a sprightly tale until the denouement. We have Isobel St. George, the aging doyenne of the American stage, who is preparing to take a company of actors off to a remote Maine island to rehearse a play in mysterious secrecy. On the morning the bus is to leave, St. George is found murdered, head bashed in, on the deserted stage of the theater named for her.
Why was St. George being so secretive about the play? Why did she masquerade as a housekeeper to visit old English manor houses? What role would bring her back to the stage for a smashing triumph to climax her career?
Suyker has some devilishly inventive answers to these questions. She adds a nice fillip of romance with Molly McConnell, a resourceful heroine who works as a researcher for a news magazine, and who is teamed with a breezy crime reporter for a New York tabloid. Suyker writes brightly about the theater world and magazine group journalism and has done her Shakespearean research. If she only had a culprit worthy of the plot.
Barney Miller's TV cops may have their wacky moments in their New York precinct house. But these seem quite sane when compared with the antic goings-on at the Yellowthread Street headquarters in Hong Kong.
The boys of the Yellowthread Street gang are back in Sci-Fi (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $10.95), the sixth screwball mystery from William Marshall, who has the rare gift of juggling scary suspense with wild humor and making both work.
The situation is ready-made for Marshall's likable, fumbling crew. The All-Asian Science Fiction and Horror Movie Festival has convened in the fictitious Hong Bay neighborhood. The streets have been invaded by sf fans decked out in costumes as Spiderman, the Green Slime, Stars Wars' extra-terrestrials, Bela Lugosi, and the Incredible Shrinking Man. Among them an asbestos-suited Spaceman wanders about, incinerating people and $1 million on display in a hotel lobby with his flame-throwing gun.
Detective Inspector O'Yee is trying to scrounge scarce movie tickets for his family while two colleagues have a hilarious encounter with a phantom thief at a computerized car parking lot. So it is left to Chief Inspector Feiffer, as usual, to track down the Spaceman and try to protect the piano that represents the ticket back home for an aging English chanteuse whose repertoire consists of rueful love ballads of the 1940s. Have fun.