A RASH of domestic violence -- three wife-beating husbands have been shot and killed -- has struck the Massachusetts town of Port Frederick. It's enough to make Jenny Cain and Geof, her policeman-lover, think again about getting married in two weeks.
In Marriage Is Murder (Scribners, $14.95), Nancy Pickard, who won an Anthony award at the last Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Baltimore, returns with Jenny after the jaunty, light-hearted No Body, a wickedly funny expose' of funeral-business scams.
This time Pickard tackles a serious topic, fresh as today's headlines: the battered wife who may be driven to murder. It's a grim subject, hardly the stuff of comedy, and casts a shadow over Pickard's witty and bright style in this fourth Jenny Cain outing.
Pickard does write with sensitivity and compassion about a crime that has emerged from the privacy of family life in recent years. She deals with the failure of the criminal justice system to help battered women who file complaint after complaint and learn "to go limp like those peace marchers, in mind and body and voice" when their husbands become violent.
Jenny, who runs a non-profit civic foundation in Port Frederick, is a thoroughly modern heroine. She has been living with Geof, a policeman with a trust fund, who is becoming frustrated with his job since he often can do so little to help crime victims. Knowing what police work means to Geof, Jenny tries to help in the investigation. Most murder victims are killed by someone they know, she recognizes, but she is puzzled by the striking similarities in three different homicides. Furthermore, each of the wives denies vehemently that she killed her spouse.
The solution is strained and not quite convincing. And Pickard doesn't play fair in the riveting prologue. Yet, even such an unpleasant subject can't stifle her bubbling humor and sharp wit, and Marriage Is Murder offers some amusing moments along with insight into a vexing problem.
Murder in Mind
LEO HAGGERTY, Washington's own private eye cut from the Spenser mold, faces something far more terrifying than physical violence (there is plenty of that, too) in A Tax in Blood (Tor/St. Martin's, $14.95).
It is the threat of mind control (remember The Manchurian Candidate?), using subtle psychological tools to achieve personality reconstruction. Benjamin M. Schutz, a practicing clinical psychologist, makes it horribly credible in this third Leo Haggerty private-eye thriller.
It opens with a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial wall by Haggerty, Samantha, his lover, and Arnie, a friend who is a disturbed veteran of the war. A few hours later Haggerty is watching a Cowboys-Redskins game when the news is flashed that a bomb had exploded at the memorial, killing 19 people. Among the dead is the 8-year-old boy whom Arnie boosted to touch the engraved letters of his uncle's name.
The bombing is to tie in with Haggerty's new case. The widow of a State Department official hires him to prove that her husband, found dead in a downtown hotel room from a lethal mixture of drugs and alcohol, did not commit suicide. At stake is a $200,000 insurance claim.
The search takes Haggerty to the 14th Street corridor with its hookers and pimps and to the Georgetown office of a Dr. Guiterrez, who worked nights at the mental clinic visited by the State Department attache. What kind of research project in hypno-therapy is being conducted by Dr. Guiterrez?
The power of A Tax in Blood lies in the psychological terror evoked by Schutz. Haggerty, likable though he is, is the conventional hard-boiled detective figure. Schutz frequently lapses into overwrought emotion and prose and, through Arnie, delivers scary observations on the state of a world where "without warning you could be history" if "you don't notice that brown bag over there or that the car parked at the corner has a ticket on it." Still, these excesses can not lessen the impact of A Tax in Blood.
Slatterns and Loose Fish
ALICE CHETWYND LEY has blended Regency romance with murder mystery to come up with a beguiling little charmer in A Fatal Assignation (St. Martin's, $15.95).
It begins quite innocently when Miss Anthea Rutherford keeps an appointment for a dress fitting at Madame Yvonne's modish salon on Bond Street. Anthea, a perky, independent lass of 19, mistakenly is ushered into a side room by a harried assistant. There her curiosity is piqued by a cleverly concealed door. When she opens it a crack for a peek inside, she finds the door leads to Madame Yvonne's lavishly appointed private chambers. And there, sitting on an elegant sofa, is Sir Aubrey Jermyn, an intimate of the Prince Regent and a man with a well-earned reputation for lechery.
Soon afterwards Sir Aubrey disappears, and the family asks discreet help from the Honorable Justin Rutherford, Anthea's bachelor uncle, whose scholarly and reclusive lifestyle is the despair of mothers looking over eligble swains for their daughters. Justin soon is joined by Joseph Watts, the Bow Street runner, as they take on their second case (their debut was in A Reputation Dies).
The charm of A Fatal Assignation is in Ley's evocation of the speech, social mores and dress of the opening decades of the 19th century. Where else would one learn that a womanizing Regency buck was called a "loose fish?" We move from elegant drawing rooms to hovels and streets with cut-throats, slatterns and grave-robbers (Sir Aubrey's cadaver turns up on his surgeon's dissecting table after being sold to a hospital by "resurrection men"). The ladies gossip, and so do the servants, providing valuable clues.
Justin and the Bow Street runner rather tediously work out an elaborate timetable to catch the not-so-surprising villain. If not that engrossing, the plot is serviceable and offers some puzzling moments amid the lively evocation of the Regency.
And, of course, there is a touch of romance with Justin attracted to a pert blonde with cerulean blue eyes. They part at the end, but Justin, off to the digs in Turkey or Greece, hints "our paths may cross again."
The Cutting-Room Floor
JACOB ASCH, the California gumshoe in a first-rate private eye series started in 1974 by Arthur Lyons, makes his ninth appearance in Fast Fade (Mysterious Press, $15.95).
It's the Hollywood scene, shifted to Palm Springs for location shots as a minor opus, Death in the Desert, is being filmed. Asch goes there when a client hires him to prove movie director Walter Cairns is really the husband who deserted her years earlier under another name. Cairns, a couch-casting director with a taste for kinky sex and blackmail, is hated by everyone on the set from his ex-alcoholic film editor to the sexy but aging star to the disgruntled screenwriter. So there is no shortage of suspects when he is found throttled amid all the trappings of a sado-masochistic sex orgy.
Although Lyons writes within the hardboiled detective tradition, the Asch private eye series has an individual style and tone. An easygoing narrator, Asch is a more buoyant spirit than the stock sardonic shamus and has less need for tough-guy posturing, although he does get in his violent licks.
The Hollywood lore offers a bonus in Fast Fade with Lyons recounting such fascinating tidbits as the story behind the Peg Entwistle Syndrome. In the 1930s, a bit player named Peg Entwistle, depressed over her failure to reach stardom, lept to her death from the top of the 13th letter of the famous Hollywood sign on the hillside overlooking Tinseltown (the sign originally had extra letters spelling out Hollywoodland, the name for a projected real estate sub-division that flopped).
TIMOTHY WILLIAMS takes a rocky, bumpy detour in The White Audi (St. Martin's, $16.95). His two earlier mysteries -- The Metal Green Mercedes and The Red Citroen (he collects car titles as Martha Grimes does pub names) -- were sleeker, speedier models.
On this trip through Northern Italy, his Commissario Trotti broods unceasingly about life and death and aging and marriage and children. His estranged wife is with a lover in America; his daughter has her own life in another city; he is 58 and probably too old for the young policewoman in his squad; he wonders if he might adopt a baby boy abandoned soon after birth.
The chaotic plot veers off the main road in all directions. First, a young girl is slashed while sleeping on the sofa usually occupied by her older sister. Then Trotti, prompted by an old priest from his hometown in the hills, reluctantly looks into several mysterious deaths that may be rooted in World War II, when Italian partisans were fighting the Fascists and the Nazis were trying to smuggle out a gold board.
It's all very somber, very convoluted. The two-voiced dialogue exchanges are often maddeningly elliptical and obtuse. Still, Williams does capture the Northern Italian milieu with particular insight into the changing attitudes of its people as a younger generation discards the old traditions of family life.
Jean M. White reviews mysteries for Book World on the third Sunday of the month.