By Jean M. White
ROBERT BARNARD, the inventive British writer who can be counted on to come up with a fresh slant on the traditional British mystery, once again shows his versatility and ingenuity in Fete Fatale (Scribners, $13.95). As always, Barnard offers a delightful blend of witty social satire and genuine mystery.
The setting is the familiar English village with vicar, afternoon teas, church bazaars, and Barbara Pym's "excellent" women, who polish church brasses, bring altar flowers, and organize do-good committees. But as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple has observed, time and time again, there can be strong emotions under the placid surface of English village life.
In Fete Fatale, the village is the Yorkshire town of Hexton-on-Weir, where the new vicar-designate is viewed with alarm by some of the church-going women. Anglican Father Battersby does not have a wife. But, far worse, he is a celibate and has high- church leanings. Who will perform the traditional duties of a vicar's wife? Will there be incense and showy rituals at the church services?
We see all the uproar among the village ladies through the eyes of Helen Kitterege, the narrator, who is both amused and angered by the machinations of the old guard. Her husband, Marcus, is the village veterenarian and a church warden who supports the vicar-designate.
The turmoil comes to a head at the annual church fete with the appearance of Father Battersby. In the swirl of activity, Helen sees Marcus take off for a spot of tea. Soon afterwards, his body is found floating in a nearby stream. He has been stabbed to death by a sharp, thin object. Helen remembers the steel hatpins that she had been selling at her booth. Her catharsis is to track down her husband's killer.
The killer's identity and motivation come as a stunning surprise to Helen -- and the reader. The motive must be a first in the mystery field. It springs from an unlikely combination of circumstances and character, but Barnard makes it plausible given the situation. And he saves a pleasant surprise for the end.
Murder Must Advertise
TRY New, Improved Murder (St. Martin's, $12.95) with a money-back guarantee that you'll get a fast, slick mystery set against the background of the high-pressure world of advertising.
With back-stabbing account executives, pushy media reps, and frustrated writers and artists, the advertising business has more than its fair share of people who can arouse murderous intent. In Edward Gorman's second mystery, the first victim is Stephen Elliot, a hotshot account executive who had been attracting new clients to a midwestern advertising firm that had been on the skids.
The narrator is Jack Dwyer, a former cop who has become a private eye to support his acting habit after tasting stadom on law- and-order commercials for the police department. He gets a call from Jane, his former live-in girlfriend, who ditched him to move in with the womanizing Elliot. He finds her in a state of shock with a gun in her hand. Dwyer sets out to prove her innocence.
There are many to testify to Elliot's creative genius. Yet no one seems to know anything about his past. Dwyer has to piece together a bizarre background.
New, Improved Murder is as fast-paced and attention-getting as a 30-second TV commercial. The plot is a tangle of strange obsessions and relationships, kinky sex, blackmail, and twisted emotions. But Gorman certainly knows how to package his product.
Death and Texas
FROM A HIGH PLACE (Scribners, $13.95) introduces still another new private eye to a business where competition must be fierce since nearly every shamus seems to be broke and hiding from creditors.
Not so for Dan Roman, a Dallas-based investigator, who appears to be running a successful franchise. He returns to his small Texas hometown for a restorative escape to the cabin that he and his father had built in the woods. Then his old high-school English teacher asks Roman to look into the death of her husband. She doesn't think it was either an accident or suicide when he fell over a cliff. But who would want to kill a 75-year- old, mild-mannered assistant librarian?
As Roman digs up evidence that the man may have had a secret life, he has time to pick up the past with his old football buddies and the high-school sweetheart who dallied with three of the Infallible Four stars of an almost-championship season.
In his first novel, Edward Mathis achieves a strong sense of Texas place, character, and regional speech. Some of the minor characters -- a spunky old man who cites geriatric sex statistics and a spinster librarian who remembers the student with a voracious appetite for books -- are well etched.
The trouble is that From a High lace is overwritten and overplotted with more hidden secrets than a week of soap opera. The violence produces a carnage of gruesome deaths. There is far too much nostalgia and introspection. Yet there is promise in the writing of this first try. Now if Mathis can practice restraint. . .
IT IS the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Belle Appleman, a youngish widow, feels lucky to have landed a job sewing belt loops on pants for the Classic Clothing Company in Boston.
In Death and Blintzes (Walker, $14.95), Belle, a likeable busybody with unquenchable curiosity, soon is embroiled in union politics and the lives of the other sewing machine operators. On a Sunday walk along the Esplanade of the Charles River, Belle drops her maple-nut ice cream cone when she spots a body in the river.
The murder victim is Jeanette Laval, shop steward for Belle's Pants Department and a sexy gal who had more than union business to transact with the management and the boss' son. A determined Belle views the corpse as her own and launches an investigation of the murder with the help of a friendly cop.
Dorothy and Sidney Rosen lovingly evoke the flavor of the '30s and the New England garment industry in the early days of unionization. It's a light, entertaining tale even if the plot is not that tidy.
Bones of Contention
SHERLOCK HOLMES, to Watson's constant astonishment, could glance at a man's cloak and boots and announce where the stranger lived and what he did in life. Professor Gideon Oliver, a physical anthropologist, needs only a few bone fragments to reconstruct a man's past and estimate his height and weight to the near-inch and pound.
In Aaron J. Elkins' Murder in the Queen's Armes (Walker, $14.95), Professor Oliver is on his honeymoon in England when he decides to take a busman's holiday and visit the Dorset digs of a former colleague, who hints of a find that will stun Bronze Age experts.
A studet assistant disappears from the archeological crew. It is weeks later that Professor Oliver, who, to his dismay, has been dubbed the "skeleton detective," identifies the water-bloated, fish-nibbled body pulled from a river (the bones show that they belonged to a young man who was a southpaw baseball pitcher and motorcycle rider).
This is the third adventure for Professor Oliver, who met his new wife, Julie, then a forest ranger, in an earlier outing in the state of Washington. The professor is a rather engaging chap. In Murder in the Queen's Armes, however, the action frequently bogs down with much talk and the honeymoon couple's long walks around the English countryside. Elkins, himself a physical anthropologist, is a literate writer who drops fascinating scholarly tidbits. He could become an acquired taste for readers with patience.
Mystery by Gaslight
BACK TO the hansom cabs and gaslit, foggy streets of Victorian London in the 1890s in Deathwatch (Scribners, $13.95), the third in Ray Harrison's series featuring Detective-Sergeant Joseph Bragg and Constable James Morton.
It's a dandy mystery with period atmosphere, an assortment of lively characters, smart police work, warm humor, a marvellous balloon chase, and a team of odd-couple cops, each likable in his own way. Sergeant Bragg is a policeman who worked his way up through the ranks from a constable pounding the beat. Constable Morton is the son of the lord lieutenant of Kent and has a degree from Cambridge.
The case begins when a constable's body is found impaled on the spikes of the railings of Allhallows Church. The dead constable had been working undercover to investigate labor unrest that may have been stirred up by outsiders. Morton's new romantic attachment leads to serious complications in Deathwatch. But it is the middle-aged, portly Bragg, of all people, who finds himself accused of rape when a young woman raises an outcry in a railway carriage.
In a corker of an ending, Bragg and Morton, using horse and cart and an early Daimler, race to shoot down a balloon carrying the villain and Catherine Marsden, the fetching girl reporter whom Morton has yet to notice. We wait impatiently for the next episode from Harrison.
Jean M. White reviews mysteries for Book World on the third Sunday of the month.