TORONTO COP Charlie Salter is back, and if that news doesn't give you a lift, then you are one of the unfortunate who didn't meet him last year in Eric Wright's The Night the Gods Smiled.
In Smoke Detector (Scribner's, $12.95), Charlie survives a tangled plot and manages to emerge as engaging as ever. Charlie is a decent chap with very human feelings. He is someone you would like to have as a good friend. At mid-life, he has some regrets but none of the indulgent self-absorption that paralyzes so many of his contemporaries in fiction. He still loves Annie, his wife, and their playful sex life. But she now is excited about her new job in advertising. Then Angus, his older son, has concealed a cache of skin magazines in his bedroom, and Annie says it's up to father to discipline son.
And Charlie, who backed the wrong man in departmental politics, still is in an administrative backwater at police headquarters despite grudging respect won by solving the earlier case. When he is assigned to a smoke-inhalation death during an arson, it doesn't seem a challenging case to win more brownie points from his superiors.
Cyril Drecker, a sleazy second-hand furniture dealer, has been found dead in the apartment above his torched shop. Charlie has no shortage of suspects. Was it a discarded mistress? Or perhaps the gay shop assistant who had been humiliated by Drecker? And what about the non-grieving wife or the mysterious elderly Japanese gentleman seeking a box that Drecker may or may not have found at a yard sale?
You get the drift. It's a labyrinth of leads as Charlie tries to figure out who hated Drecker enough to set fire to the shop.
Wright overloads his plot with complications and subplots that reach back 40 years and require too much sorting out in the end. It's worth the effort to make the acquaintance of Charlie Salter. And don't miss the tender-funny fishing trip that Charlie arranges to get closer to son Angus. It works out splendidly for father-son understanding despite everything going wrong. Jerusalem Inn
JERUSALEM INN -- another English pub and the title for another very British mystery from Martha Grimes, the American writer who evoked the names of Sayers and Christie with publication of her four previous Inspector Richard Jury outings.
That overenthusiasm is innocent and understandable in the joy of discovering that someone still can write a stylish, witty mystery in the British manner with an ingenious plot puzzle, an urbane Scotland Yard inspector, and a cast of characters enlivened by fascinating English eccentrics.
Jerusalem Inn (Little, Brown, $15.95) opens with a haunting scene in a snowy graveyard a few days before Christmas. Inspector Jury, the bachelor-policeman on a duty visit to spend the holidays with a disagreeable cousin and family, chances into a cemetery. Quarreling sparrows have bloodied each other; a black cat sits in a dry birdbath. It is a depressing scene until Jury spots a woman bending over a headstone and taking notes.
So he meets Helen Minton. The next time Jury sees her she is dead. What might have been a romance has become tragedy.
After that simple, moving scene in the snowy graveyard, things get cluttered and complicated in Jerusalem Inn. Of course, Melrose Plant, the inspector's amateur sidekick who chucked an earl's title, and his horrible Aunt Agatha soon appear on the scene, houseguests of a famous critic in his snowbound Gothic manor reached only by cross-country skis or Land Rover. Nearby is Jerusalem Inn, a scruffy, shabby excuse for an English pub. Jury finds links to Helen Minton's past in both the manor house and the inn.
Sometimes you can overdo a good thing. In the earlier Jury books, ther was just a hint, a whiff, of preciousness and overreaching archness. In Jerusalem Inn, Melrose Plant and Aunt Agatha are a bit too much at times; the bright chit-chat often strains, and the motivation is unconvincing however clever the plot twist.
But this should not deter you from enjoying this elegant and witty writer and such bright observations as: "The combs gave to the hair that tumbled look of one just preparing for bed . . . (She) gave Melrose more of herself than her hand: the only thing between them was her cocktail glass."
Grimes, the Washington-based writer who taught college English in nearby Takoma Park, already has found a new pub to supply the title for her next book, due in May. Someone Else's Grave
THE ENGLISH-VILLAGE mystery has its counterpart in small-town America, which also has an alarmingly high homicide rate in detective novels. You might say it's "Our Town" laced with murder.
Someone Else's Grave (St. Martin's, $11.95) is such a mystery. It s Alison Smith's first suspense novel, and it's quite impressive in its unpretentious, quiet way. She captures the small-town atmosphere of Coolidge Corners, Vermont, knows her New England characters, introduces a police chief who is a likable and an interesting human being, and writes graceful prose. True, the plot needs to be tidied, and Smith resorts to the familiar scenario of decoying the suspect into a trap. But these are minor complaints for a first novel that is entertaining, absorbing, and intelligent.
No one could figure out why anyone would try to kill old Miss Adams, who was attacked after she returned home from the cemetery where she had taken fresh-cut flowers to decorate forgotten graves on Memorial Day as she had done for the last 40 years.
Then a new body is discovered dumped in an old grave -- that of a young woman accountant who liked to jog. Two other women, both of whom lived on the jogger's route, are killed, and Coolidge Corners is no longer a quiet little town. Fear has chased away its charm.
Judd Springfield, who reluctantly uses Miss Adams as bait to trap the killer, is not your usual small-town police chief. Each year, on Jan. 1, he throws darts at a board to choose the topic for a personal year-long reading project. Lincoln had meant a very good year for him, even better than astronomy, the Renaissance, and American theater. Now he's into Greek civilization.
Springfield has to deal with other problems beside a string of murders. His over-mothered, 18-year-old nephew has been reclusive and troubled. It is a touching, disturbing conversation when Springfield questions his nephew and is told: "The kids think I'm queer."
"Are you?" asks Springfield.
"I don't know anymore. None of the girls will have anything to do with me . . . Well, if everyone else thinks I am, maybe I am."
Springfield, harassed by a venal mayor, also has to decide whether to take an attractive job offer elsewhere. He feels responsible for oolidge Corners and then realizes:
"The town could get along without him if he left. He was just kidding himself about how much they needed him here, because he wanted to believe it."
I hope that it isn't perverse to wish that a crime wave sweeps Coolidge Corners so that we may see more of Chief Springfield.