GLAD TIDINGS this holiday season for Anglophile readers addicted to the classical British mystery. Martha Grimes, the American writer who carries on in the Sayers-Christie-Allingham manner, is in smashingly good form in The Deer Leap (Little, Brown, $15.95).
It is a mystery with charm, grace, characters both richly comic and sinister, a nifty plot with a twist of surprise, and, at the end, a poignancy that pierces the heart.
The body of a woman tumbles out of a phone call-box in the small English village of Ashdown Dean. As it would happen, the body falls at the feet of Polly Praed, a mystery writer introduced in an earlier Grimes' novel. Polly, waiting impatiently to use the public phone in a downpour, finally yanks open the door to complain to the nattering occupant, only to find that the woman had never completed her call.
That is how Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury finds himself, unofficially, in Ashdown Dean with Melrose Plant, his aristocratic friend and sometime amateur sleuth, and the hypochondriacal Sgt. Wiggins, still popping pills and wrapping mufflers to ward off colds.
Plant, who doesn't seem to have made much progress over two years in winning shy Polly's affections, had answered her call for help after she found the body and lost her cat, Barney, taken from her car before she could slip him into a hotel.
The dead woman in the call-box turns out to be the village postmistress, who had a tricky heart and apparently died of natural causes. Yet puzzling things have been happening in Ashdown Dean. Pets, including the dog of the busybody postmistress, have died in strange mishaps. And why did the postmistress struggle uphill in a storm, without an umbrella, to make a non-emergency call? Soon the innkeeper's wife dies, again in curious circumstances, locked in a playhouse that proves lethal because of her claustrophobia.
Polly's cat is rescued and returned by Carrie Fleet, a solitary, taciturn 15-year-old, who runs a sanctuary for stray and injured animals and harasses the fox hunters' lodge and an animal research lab.
Jury is to find that the murders revolve around Carrie's past. For the last five years she has lived with a flamboyant, gin-swilling baroness, who rescued her from a family of London lowlifes. The Brindles, straight from the pages of an updated Dickens, had found Carrie wandering on the heath, her memory blacked out by a head blow. They took her in to collect a government dole and later sell her to the baroness for s1,000.
In search of Carrie's past, Jury returns to London. There, with the help of a 19-year-old topless dancer who occupies the apartment above his -- Carole-Anne is a marvellous character with her punk make-up, clothes and lingo -- Jurytraces Carrie's kin. But the discovery does not lead to a happy reunion.
The Deer Leap is the seventh in the Richard Jury series, with titles taken from the names of English pubs. It ranks among the best. Doug Hornig
THE PRIVATE EYE business has attracted two other Washington area writers. Doug Hornig's Loren Swift finds things are not that peaceful in rural Virginia, and Benjamin M. Schutz's Leo Haggerty has staked out Washington and its suburbs.
Hornig, who also writes poetry and lives in Afton, Virginia, was a contender for an Edgar for best first mystery last year. He has followed that success with Hardball (Scribner's, $13.95), again featuring Swift, the only private eye in Charlottesville.
It is a crackling, entertaining tale, better than the Edgar nominee, Foul Shot, where the action took place on and off the University of Virginia basketball court. In Hardball, politics and cocaine prove an incendiary mixture when drug dealers try to take over the sheriff's office in Albemarle County.
Swift is called by Sheriff Ridley Campbell, a tough, honest policeman who had been his friend in the earlier investigation. Campbell wants to hire Swift to find out who is putting up the campaign money for Lester Beavans, a "good ole boy," who has returned to Virginia after a five-year stay in Florida. Campbell thinks his rival is using dirty tricks, including staging near-accidents to frighten the sheriff's wife and son and poisoning his hound dogs.
Swift, who had dropped out of the private- eye business after the basketball case, where he saw that "innocent people sometimes die in ugly and undeserved ways," agrees to help his friend. This does not sit too well with Patricia Ryan, who has been his lover since they met in Foul Ball.
Again, Swift finds that nice people can get innocently involved in ugly situations. Patricia's young brother, Patrick, a computer genius and paraplegic, is kidnaped when he suspects his boss may be importing more than Caribbean artifacts. Swift traces the kidnappers to an isolated farmhouse and the rescue attempt ends in a wild shoot-out. Then, when all seems over, comes a harrowing scene that doesn't end on the last page.
Hardball is trimmer and leaner than Hornig's first mystery. Swift has emerged as a thoroughly likable chap, a breezy, witty narrator without being a wiseacre. The plot is tidy with a straight story line and a fillip of computer whizzery in the form of a coded message.
I have one quibble that isn't that minor. The reader is left dangling with excruciating suspense on the last page and told on the dust jacket that the climax will leave a "growing audience eagerly awaiting Loren Swift's next adventure." Hornig does not need such tricks to attract readers. A novel is not a "to-be-continued" magazine serial or a soap opera designed to hook viewers for the next episode. Benjamin M. Schutz
ALL THE OLD BARGAINS (Bluejay Books, $13.95) marks the second appearance of Leo Haggerty, the Washington private eye who makes a specialty of missing-person cases. Haggerty made his debut earlier this year in Embrace the Wolf, in which Schutz, the author and a clinical psychologist who lives in Dunn Loring, Virginia, drew a terrifying portrait of a psychopath who kidnapped children and never asked ransom for their return.
In All the Old Bargains, a teen-ager is missing from her suburban Belle Haven home. Miranda Benson's mother hires Haggerty to find her daughter, who had been a good student until a sudden change into a shopping-mall groupie. Miranda's father, who always shepherded Miranda home from school, quickly fires Haggerty and then rehires him, replacing the mother as a client. It is clear that Miranda did not come from a warm, embracing family with her parents using her to spite each other.
The case is to take Haggerty into the deep, dark recesses of twisted minds. Author-psychologist Schutz writes compellingly of the evil that lurks in the hearts and minds of men.
Haggerty, the big-city private investigator, is more hard-edged, tough and cynical than Hornig's Swift, whose turf is in rural and small- town Virginia. Schutz, a buff of hard-boiled detective fiction, has mastered the genre's tight- lipped narration and fast-paced action with exploding violence. He has a sharp eye for telling detail: Haggerty's client opens the door and he observes: "Her close-cropped hair, unmade face, and simple black dress impressed me as self-denial, not stylish restraint." Joe Gash NEWSPAPER MURDERS (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, $13.95), the third in the Chicago police series by Joe Gash, is as harsh, gritty, dark-humored, and sporadically gripping as its predecessors, the Edgar-winning Public Murders and the later Priestly Murders.
Chicago is Gash's kind of town. He captures the attraction of the city's raw energy and the impelling need -- for some people, at least -- to be in the place where things happen. But Gash also looks at the ugly side of big-city life with biting realism. This is a tale of corrupt and expedient politics, two-way racism, media sensationalism, and police brass willing to railroad a case under pressure.
In Newspaper Murders, a reporter is beaten to death in a dark alley, and his newspaper seizes the opportunity to mount a media campaign to make him a martyr and posthumous Pulitzer winner. Political machine and press clamor for the police to nail members of the Brothers of Mecca, a black cult, which was to be the subject of a dubious expose.
Francis X. Sweeney seems an unlikely murder target. A boozy, over-the-hill reporter with no pretensions to be a hot-shot investigative reporter, Sweeney could not stomach the sensationalism of the paper's new owner, a Rupert Murdoch-like figure. The managing editor, Sweeney's old childhood chum, had hoped to save Sweeney's job by giving him the rewrite assignment on the publisher's pet expose.
With screaming headlines and politicians worried about reelection, Sgt. Terry Flynn and Detective Karen Kovac, who share homicide berths and beds, doggedly try to keep the investigation on track and look for suspects beyond cult members.
The murder's solution and motivation are barely plausible. But these are secondary to Gash's Chicago scene. The language is raunchy and foul-mouthed -- as tough cops, street people, and reporters often talk. Gash, an alias for a veteran reporter and newspaper columnist, writes sadly of the passing of the old-style journalism and newsroom, where "typewriters banged, the wire-service machines along the wall hiccupped the news of the world, and everywhere there was paper and grime and old newspapers."
Jean M. White reviews mysteries for Book World on the third Sunday of the month.