THE WOMEN police officers introduced in two new police procedurals are not the Cagney and Lacey of television. Detective Deb Ralston, the motherly type and soon to be a grandmother, is a veteran police officer in Fort Worth, Texas. Lt. Sigrid Harald may solve her murders in New York City, but she's as uptight as her neat, severe hair bun.
By far the most appealing is Ralston, who makes her debut in Lee Martin's Too Sane a Murder (St. Martin's, $12.95). Martin, who was a police officer in Georgia before she moved to Texas to write and work on her PhD in English, writes from experience with an eye for evocative detail. The smell of an isolation cell permeates a detective's clothes. There is a bullet hole in the wall of the jail elevator. A rookie cop is upbraided for flushing evidence down the toilet in the vomit of a suspect.
The opening scene of Too Sane a Murder is riveting. Detective Ralston is called to the bloody scene of multiple murders in hopes that she can "relate" to Olead Baker, a 26- year-old man with a history of schizophrenia and violence as a teenager.
Olead, calm and curious, follows the woman detective as she moves about the house. In the den lie the bodies of his mother, stepfather, two guests, and a cat. The body of his 4-year-old half-sister is found amid the debris of smashed furniture in a bedroom.
Despite all the evidence -- past record of violence, fingerprints on the shotgun, bruise on the shoulder, memory blank -- Ralston comes to believe in Olead's innocence. The fascinating puzzle that unfolds centers on how the evidence was faked and Olead framed down to the gunpowder residue on his hands and the bruised shoulder. In the end, Ralston proves that these were indeed sane murders for greed and not the work of a maniac. If plausibility is stretched on some points, this is still an intriguing exercise in detection.
Martin has a tendency to overdo the picture of Ralston as sympathetic, understanding cop. Within minutes of meeting Olead, in the midst of the carnage, she hands over the only survivor, an infant half-brother, to this young man with a troubled background. Yet all it would take is one fling against the wall -- there is something to be said for prudent caution.
And Martin does compromise her solid police investigation with an overwrought courtroom confrontation. On balance, however, Too Sane a Murder is a taut police procedural that moves with brisk pace and offers a distinctively different woman cop who is an interesting and appealing human being. Butterflies, Stamps And Corpses
NEW YORK policewoman Lt. Sigrid Harald is a smart, efficient cop but not one to win your heart in Death of a Butterfly (Doubleday Crime Club, $11.95). Perhaps Margaret Maron expects us to find something endearing in Sigrid's stiffness and awkwardness with people. But her charms elude me.
Yet Sigrid is a shrewd police detective as she investigates the murder of Julie Richmond, a ruthless woman who deserved all her enemies. If her heroine is not one to warm the emotions, Maron has assembled some well-drawn and lively characters among the suspects and produces a surprising murderer after some dogged and persistent police work by Sigrid. It's a modest but competent first outing, and the lieutenant may loosen her hair and dignity in her next appearance.
"Everyone has an equal right to legal protection, rich or poor. I happen to have ended up with the rich."
Brady Coyne, the narrator-sleuth of William G. Tapply's The Dutch Blue Error (Scribner's, $12.95), isn't a sell-out to fat fees. He is a realist whose ambition after Yale Law School was to go it alone. Wealthy clients make that possible. And they offer more interesting villains than pimps, drug pushers or underworld thugs.
One of Coyne's rich Boston clients is Oliver Hazard Perry Weston, an arrogant autocrat in a wheelchair with a son whom he dismisses as a weakling. Weston asks Coyne to act as a go-between in the purchase of a stamp from a mysterious caller. It may be a duplicate of Weston's Dutch Blue Error, the 15-cent 1852 stamp that is the prize of his philatelic collection.
Before the transaction can be completed, the seller turns up a corpse. Then the Peabody Museum curator who tested the second stamp is found dead in his lab. There is a knockout climax, charged with irony and a trifle heavy on melodrama. This a first-rate mystery, and Coyne, with his wry, understated narration, is one of the most likable sleuths to appear on the crime scene in quite a long time. His debut was in Death at Charity's Point last year, which won the Scribner Crime Novel Award for Tapply.
With a spirited and pretty young heroine and her watchful aunt, shipboard romance, an incognito prince, Balkan political intrigue, a governess with secrets, Death in a Deck Chair (Walker, $12.95) is a delightful throwback to the 1920s. K.K. Beck writes with good-natured wit and loving appreciation. It's like turning back the pages to early Christie.
The first-class section of a transoceanic liner offers a neat "locked room" puzzle, and there's a bang-up scene at the ship's costume ball to unmask the murderer. So sit back, relax, and enjoy even if you don't have a deck chair.
Young Iris Cooper is returning from a round-the-world trip with her wealthy Aunt Hermione aboard the British liner Irenia. Among her fellow passengers are a Theda Bara-like movie vamp, a brash reporter from a muckraking American newspaper, a bearded professor who lectures on the criminal mind, and a millionaire from Sioux Falls who is an innocent at gambling. There is also the darkly handsome piano player in the ship's jazz band. It should prove to be an interesting trip, and it gets more interesting when the professor's secretary, a singularly unattractive young man, is found stabbed to death in his deck chair.
Beck handles familiar ingredients without slipping into clich,e. Her young heroine, no wide-eyed innocent, is resouceful and clever when drawn into the investigation as a shorthand reporter to take notes at the captain's inquiry into the murder. Aunt Hermione has more substance than your usual fussy aunt- chaperone and is quite a gal herself.
Beck dedicates her book to "Aunt Gudrun who loved a cozy murder." Aunt Gudrun would have loved Death in a Deck Chair. Death in Spades
DID YOU KNOW that Mrs. Robb brought back Euphorbia robbiae, a nasty, invasive nuisance in English gardens, in her hatbox from a plant-collecting expedition in Turkey? This is just one of the fascinating horticulural facts that John Sherwood digs up in Green Trigger Fingers (Scribners, $11.95). Sherwood is a serious gardener. He is also a talented writer whose earlier Death at the BBC was a brilliant tour de force with a devilishly clever plot turn.
Green Trigger Fingers is something else -- a traditional English village mystery. As Miss Marple has reminded us many times, a village is a microcosm of the world, with deep and dark passions under the placid surface. Celia Dale, an independent and lively middle- aged widow, has come to Westfield to run a specialty nursery after the death of her botanist-husband. She has to take gardening chores on the side to support herself. While cutting the grass at the Towers, an old Victorian mansion, she notices the irises have been replanted. Curious, she digs and unearths a foot. But when she returns with the police, the body has disappeared.
Westfield is not your average, idyllic English village. There is nasty gossip about Celia's sanity and her relationship with her girl assistant. And Celia has to wonder hat is going on at the Towers, where Lady Armitage, widow of a famous botanist and an expert flower painter herself, lives with her strange daughter.
Sherwood dispenses charming trivia on flowers, in real gardens and in art, as Celia, challenged to refute village gossip, sleuths to identify the missing corpse and its murderer. If the motivation proves flimsy, Green Trigger Fingers is still a quirky delight of purloined plants and art forgeries.
Jean M. White reviews mysteries for Book World on the third Sunday of each month.