Gift of the Apple

WHEN I was nine, I fell in love with a girl of twenty named Barbara, who killed herself."

It's an opening sentence that few readers will be able to resist. Happily so, for they would not want to miss the further delights of Rough Cider (Mysterious Press, $15.95).

The ingenious Peter Lovesey, who gave us Sgt. Cribb and Constable Thackery, the stalwart policemen of such Victorian mysteries as Wobble to Death and The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, shows his versatility with his latest novel. Rough Cider is a journey into the blurred and troubled memory of a man who, as a young boy, unwittingly gave testimony to send a World War II Yank -- his hero and protector -- to the gallows for murder.

Twenty years later (the time is 1964) Theo Sinclair, a testy bachelor, a university lecturer with a bad polio limp, finds his life disrupted by Alice, a young American. She is the daughter of Duke Donovan, the Yank, and forces Theo into reluctant and painful recollection of the tragedy that he witnessed as a child evacuee sent from London to an apple farm in rural England.

The memories flood back -- the two Yank soldiers helping with the apple-picking and cider-making; lovely young Barbara, the daughter in the farm family, who came back with love bites on her neck after disappearing in the woods with Cliff, a young farmhand; the scene in the barn hayloft; Barbara's suicide; the discovery of Cliff's skull in a cider barrel; Duke's return from the European battlefields to face a murder charge.

Theo and Alice revisit the apple farm in pursuit of the truth about the past. As they talk to survivors from World War II days, old fears are stirred and there is a new murder and then another.

As Theo searches his confused memory, the reader is left with tantalizing questions: Was 9-year-old Theo jealous of Duke? Did the young boy witness a rape or act of mutual passion in the hayloft when he came upon Cliff and Barbara? Was the married Yank really having an affair with the farmer's daughter?

In Rough Cider, Lovesey squeezes out the suspense much like a cider maker slowly turning and tightening his apple press.

Adventures in the Trade

ROBERT B. PARKER'S new Spenser novel is lean and taut and crisply told with moments of genuine humor and genuine poignancy. There's little of the flabbiness of pseudointrospection and preachiness that marred some recent entries in this vastly popular series, which inspired the television show Spenser: For Hire. Parker is working back into shape as a writer.

It's not that Pale Kings and Princes (Delacorte, $15.95) is vintage Spenser. It's not. The plot line is familiar -- drugs, corrupt small-town cops, mob bosses and their hoods. But there are few flagging moments in the driving narrative, and Parker still writes some of the snappiest and sauciest dialogue in the business.

A newspaper publisher hires Spenser to investigate the murder of a reporter who had been checking on Colombians and coke traffic in the small town of Wheaton, Mass., rumored to be the cocaine clearinghouse for the Northeast. The cops are hostile. So are the townspeople, who stonewall Spenser when he asks questions about the reporter's death.

Then the police chief is killed. Spenser traces the drug trade to a wholesale grocer. He forces the drug chieftain's hand by hijacking a truck carrying a big stash of cocaine and asking ransom to return the coke.

It's then time to call in the reinforcements with the menacing Hawk and Spenser's lover, the psychlogist Susan, arriving from Boston. Spenser needs not only Hawks' muscle and firepower but also Susan's understanding for the police chief's widow, who has lost both husband and son.

In the end, without enough evidence to go to court, Spenser has to force a shootout with the bad guys to achieve justice. It makes for a slam-bang climax.

Sensitive Shamus

THANKS BE that the alphabet has 26 letters and Sue Grafton has only reached "D" in her classy Kinsey Millhone series. Her latest outing is 'D' Is For Deadbeat (Holt, $15.95), and it's a dandy.

Kinsey is one of the women gumshoes who have been winning equality in the field of hard-boiled detective fiction. She is a tough professional without compromising her femininity. She is bright, brisk and thoroughly engaging.

It all begins when a man, shabbily ordinary, walks into Kinsey's office and hires her to track down a 15-year-old boy and deliver a cashier's check for $25,000. The kid once did him a favor, the new client tells Kinsey. The job may be on the strange side but doesn't seem that complicated or dangerous.

That is until the body of Kinsey's client is washed ashore at the marina harbor. Kinsey learns his real name was John Daggett and that he was an ex-con, chronic drunk, bigamist, woman-beater and had a blood-alcohol level high enough to render him falling-down drunk when he tumbled into the water. Death by accidental drowning, the police say.

But why the cashier's check? Kinsey is curious and does some checking on Daggett's past. She finds that quite a few people had good reason to hate Daggett -- two wives, a daughter, drug dealers missing money, the families of five people he'd killed in a drunk-driving accident who saw him freed after only two years in prison. The $25,000 check was for the only survivor of one of these families. Had Daggett had a pang of conscience?

Kinsey is one of the new generation of private eyes. The hard-boiled dicks of the past were cynical loners who had their own code of values and operated on the edges of society. Many of today's private eyes -- men as well as women -- are not afraid to soften their image with a show of human sympathy, concern or commitment to others.

As she watches life drain away from a mortally wounded man, Kinsey holds his hand and realizes: "There were questions I should have asked, but I didn't. I couldn't. You don't intrude on someone's dying with an . . . interrogation like you're some kind of pro."

She's No Lady

ONE OF THE earliest works of fiction in which a woman performs as an investigator of criminal cases is The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, a collection of seven stories by Catherine Louisa Pirkis, first published in book form in 1894.

Now Dover has issued a handsome paperback edition ($4.95) that reproduces six of the stories exactly as they appeared in The Ludgate Monthly with all 59 of the original illustrations. The seventh tale, "Missing!", is reprinted from the first edition.

In a literate and informative introduction, Michele Slung examines Loveday Brooke, lady detective and pioneer female private eye, as one of the "odd women" of Victorian society. The phrase, from the title of a novel by George Gissing, was an appellation for single, self-supporting women who mostly filled such jobs as governess, milliner and shopgirl.

Pirkis casts her heroine, Loveday Brooke, in the singular career as an employe of a flourishing detective agency at a time when there were no real-life models to observe. Ebenezer Dyer, her boss, has this to say of Loveday:

"Too much of a lady, do you say? . . . I don't care a twopence-halfpenny whether she is or is not a lady. I only know that she is the most sensible and practical woman I ever met."

Last Stand

ALAS, WE have the final appearance of Antony Maitand, the English barrister-sleuth, who has given us so many tense moments in his courtroom confrontations.

Fortunately, Naked Villainy (St. Martin's, $14.95) allows Maitland to exit with a grand flourish. It will stand among the best of the 48 Maitland novels written by the late Sara Woods, who died in 1985.

There will be nostalgic memories for Maitland fans as Antony once again comes to the defense of a client -- a young Frenchman accused of killing his father -- in what appears another helpless case. In a dramatic courtroom scene, with brilliantly devious examination of witnesses, Maitland saves his client and his own reputation by exposing a coven of outwardly respectable citizens who have been delving into witchcraft.

As a postscript, Naked Villainy includes a brief "biography" of Maitland, discovered among the author's papers after her death. We learn the background of the painful shoulder, which troubles Antony when he is fatigued and the stammer that afflicts him only when he is angry. Maitland will be missed.

Set in Depression-era South Dakota, the Carl Wilcox mysteries offer something different in the way of time, place and hero.

The sixth in the series is The Barbed Wire Noose (Mysterious Press, $15.95). Ex-con Wilcox, who has had his brushes with the law in the past, finds himself a lawman when small-town Corden's lone cop comes down with pneumonia. In the midst of a blizzard, a hanged man's relatives and interested parties gather at the town's only hotel. Passions rage as well as the snowstorm when secrets from the past emerge.

Harold Adams brings the bite of sardonic humor to this original series. The dialogue is earthy and laconic, and Wilcox is a special kind of hero, a restless ne'er-do-well who is trying to sort out his relationship with his stroke-stricken patriarchal father. :: Jean M. White reviews mysteries for Book World on the third Sunday of each month.