Death South African Style

OVER THE LAST decade and a half, some of the most searing glimpses of the evils of apartheid have come in six murder mysteries set in James McClure's native South Africa.

Now, after a four-year hiatus in which he profiled police departments in Liverpool (Spike Island) and San Diego (the recent Cop World), McClure has returned to his South African series featuring Lt. Tromp Kramer and Sgt. Mickey Zondi. The Artful Egg (Pantheon, $13.95) has the same telling impact of the earlier books if the murder puzzle isn't that neat and tidy.

McClure does not write polemical denunciations of apartheid. He writes clever mysteries featuring a police team consisting of an Afrikaner lieutenant and a Bantu sergeant who live and work in an apartheid society. They have genuine affection and respect for each other. Yet both must play-act in public. Zondi is Tromp's "boy." In the segregated village where he once was forced to live, Zondi can remember how his wife had scored lines on the stamped earthen floor to simulate the wood planking in the houses of whites.

The Artful Egg is as current as the newspaper headlines. In the four years since the last Kramer-Zondi outing, there have been subtle adjustments in the constraints of apartheid as the public outcry has grown around the world and demonstrators march in front of the South African embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. Still there remains the great divide between the races, a separation that corrodes the lives of both blacks and whites.

In McClure's latest mystery, the murder victim is a world-famous white woman novelist (one thinks immediately of Nadine Gordimer) whose books have been banned in South Africa (her son describes them as "anti-suffering" rather than "anti-Government"). Naomi Stride's naked body, strewn with flowers and herbs, is found beside her swimming pool. The murder weapon was a sword whose tip has broken off in her body

Was Stride killed for her political views by a rabid racist who sent her crudely-lettered hate letters with the warning than the sword is mightier than the pen? If the motive was not politics or revenge, could it have been that old favorite, money? Stride, a rich and famous novelist, had argued with her son over money, his trading in native art, and his women. Then there are the hangers-on who clustered around the successful Stride and dabbled in the arts and liberal politics.

Tromp and Zondi, cautioned not to cause embarrassment for the government as the world press descends on Trekkersburg to cover the story of Stride's murder, must tread carefully as they doggedly pursue the investigation to prevent a whitewash.

On top of all this, they are handed another prickly case involving a retired major in the police security branch who had been forced to take his pension after too many deaths of prisoners in his custody, including three who slipped in the shower. Can it be only coincidence that the major's wife dies after a "fall" in the tub?

McClure writes with understanding and insight into the plight of basically decent people of both races caught in the vise of apartheid. Capt. Muller, the Afrikaner police boss, is not a bad man but must operate in a society in which Bantu constables are always "boys" and given servile jobs. And there are those black policemen who parade like martinets before their own people, use torture to extract information, and slyly manipulate their white bosses.

Tromp, a robust, lusty chap, is a shrewd cop without any special brilliance of mind or education. It is Zondi, his self-educated Bantu sidekick, who is the brighter of the two and spots the significance of the double quotation marks in a cryptic addition to Stride's manuscript of a novel in progress. It is a clue, incidentally, that won't strike most readers since it turns on British punctuation practices.

McClure, who emigrated to England as a young man after stints as a crime reporter on three South African newspapers, introduced the Kramer-Zondi team in 1971 in The Steam Pig, in which the murder victim is a light-skinned "colored" woman who wears blue-tinted contact len and tries to pass as a white music teacher. The solution was neat and ingenious.

In The Artful Egg, McClure essays comic counterpoint in the figure of a quirky Hindu postman who discovers the body and tries to solve the murder himself armed only with his mail-order school diploma as a private eye. Of course, he withholds vital information from the police. The little postman does provide some hilarious moments but is overdone. And McClure does manipulate the clues (with more than one red herring) to spring the shocker at the end.

These quibbles aside, The Artful Egg is a first-rate mystery novel with some serious things to say about the world we live in. Sleuthing in Saratoga

IN STEPHEN DOBYNS' Saratoga Headhunter (Viking, $13.95), Charlie Bradshaw, his unassuming, good-natured private eye, makes a most welcome reappearance for his third adventure in a low- keyed, entertaining series brightened with gentle humor.

Charlie is even more woebegone than usual. He lost his steady job as a security chief for Lorelei Stables when his boss was killed in the Saratoga Springs YMCA swimming pool (Saratoga Swimmer). The private- eye business is not booming for him and his funny, rather seedy partner, Victor Plotz. Charlie has to get up before dawn to moonlight as a milkman for a friend, who rushed off to Santa Fe to be at the bedside of his mother, who has been dying for weeks marked with miraculous recoveries and repeated setbacks.

Then, to top it off, Charlie has to break a cozy dinner-at-home date with Doris, the waitress, when he reluctantly gives refuge to a crooked jockey-turned-informer who is fleeing the mob. And Charlie never really liked the jockey, but he always has been particularly nice to those he doesn't like because he somehow feels guilty for not liking them.

Things only get worse for Charlie. He comes home to find the headless body of the jockey slumped over his kitchen table. The townspeople and racing crowd think he sold out to the mob and turn their backs. His successful cousins -- construction and hardware -- are smug as they watch Charlie's muddle grow.

Then a nice old man who was a racetrack hanger-on is killed after hinting he may have some information for Charlie. So Charlie sets out to clear his own name and solve the murders (another is to come). His technique, as partner Victor observes, to to "rile up" suspects until "they come after you." Saratoga Headhunter ends with a mad milk-truck chase after Charlie uncovers a racing scam involving horse breeding.

Dobyns, a poet as wellas novelist, writes with slyly quiet humor and tender feeling. There is a touching cameo portrait of the dignified elderly woman of good family who shared a deep and lifelong friendship with the murdered old man. In one delicious scene, Charlie tries to interview a circus performer practicing bareback riding while he scurries to escape the hooves of the circling horse.

The Dobyns mysteries are as good-natured as Charlie himself. The Zen of Detection

JANWILLEM VAN de Wetering, the author of the distinctive series of Amsterdam police procedurals with Dutch detectives Grijpstra and De Gier, each an original, introduces a new sleuth in Inspector Saito's Small Satori (Putnam, $16.95).

For a premium price, readers get 11 short stories loosely linked together. In each, young Inspector Matsuo Saito applies Zen Logic to detection and waits for satori, outbursts of sudden enlightenment, to solve cases. Other detectives have had their flashes of intuition.

Saito, who irritates his superiors on the Kyoto Municipal Police force with his aristocratic, slightly arrogant manner, also uses his trusty 13th-century manual, Parallel Cases Under the Pear Tree, for guidance as he searches for parallel situations in contemporary life. The 13th-century manual, incidentally, does exist and was translated by the late Robert van Gulik, Dutch diplomat-novelist, who wrote the Judge Dee series. Van de Wetering came across it while studying in a Zen monastery in Japan.

It is difficult to warm to Saito until the last two cases, in which he recognizes his own arrogance and thinks about leaving the police force. Within the constraints of short stories, he emerges as only a half-formed character. We must wait to see whether Van de Wetering will have a satori about his new character.