THE BULLET caught him on the wing, at the apex of his flight. It smashed his hip bone and deflected upwards to plough a vertical path through his stomach wall, eviscerating him with all the force and delicacy of a blunt axe . . . He hit the concrete face down. There was a third shot, but he didn't hear it."
Laurence Gough's first novel, The Goldfish Bowl (St. Martin's Press, $13.95), rips the reader with the force of a Winchester .460 magnum fired at arm's length: "The sniper sighted on the tip of Alice's nose, elevated the barrel a fraction of an inch and gently squeezed the trigger. The rabid recoil pad slammed into his shoulder. The barrel jumped." In rain-drenched Vancouver, Canada, a sniper is on the prowl, dressed like a woman, slaughtering victims apparently at random.
In this police precedural the cops are tough and street smart, prone to violence, seedy and coarse. Bradley the Chief shouts and smokes cigars; detective protagonist Jack Willows' old partner is dying of cancer and he resents his new sidekick, Claire Parker, who is intent on proving herself in a man's world. These cops are like most television cops, except that Gough endows them with enough intelligence and individuality to keep our interest. And the sniper is a menancing, shadowy figure, enough to provoke nightmares.
Gough's plotting is fast-paced and confident. Night after night citizens are picked off. Is there any system to the killings? Are clues planted? Is the sniper a woman or a man in drag? Gough's style is as tense and tight as a trigger. His descriptions of the victims' dying are written as if in slow motion: milliseconds of anguish rendered in seemingly endless detail. And the rain, which falls in torrents throughout the book, is as forceful as machine gun fire and encapsulates the fogged helplessness of the police: "It was raining harder now, the rain blistering the pavement and frothing the gutters . . . visibility was less than a block. The windshield wiper struggled with little effect as the hammering of the car's convex roof gradually rose to a thunderous roar. It was deafening, like being inside a tin drum."
An Ordinary Man
IT'S A wonder that another first novel, Caroline Graham's The Killings at Badger's Drift (Adler and Adler, $16.95), succeeds. With its picturesque Marple-like village, its gossips, eavesdroppers and window-watchers, this book seems fated to flounder under the freight of tea-time quaintness. Here are two elderly spinsters who vie to discover the first spurred coral root orchid; a wheelchaired landowner engaged to a ravishingly beautiful younger woman, who lives with her surly artist brother on the estate; a randy doctor caught in unhappy wedlock to a promiscuous wife with a shady past; and an obese blackmailer and her homosexual son, who through binoculars observes local peccadillos such as adultery and murder. Amidst such flagrant goings-on comes Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, the ordinary man, a hardy figure of perservance and common sense who, with his assistant, Sergeant Troy, sniffs out the culprits.
The plot revolves around the death of Emily Simpson, former English teacher. While forging through the dark forest for the orchid, she sees more than she wished. That evening she is found dead in her cottage. Why? How? What is the hemlock doing in her kitchen? Why is Shakespeare's Julius Caesar opened to a passage that has been bracketed? These questions lead Barnaby to speculate about another death a few years earlier, also under unusual circumstances.
Graham's denouement is perhaps too Freudian, and the literary quotations, though always a welcome diversion, seem forced. Nonetheless, Graham, a former professional dancer, actress, journalist and scriptwriter, sidesteps all the briarbushes that often prick first novelists, and produces a first-rate first novel. Her characters are strong, drawn with a decidedly dark side; her plot is twisted enough to stump the most astute; her dialogue is crisp; her descriptions of the countryside wonderfully evocative; and -- a totally superfluous pleasure -- the names of her characters are magnificently eccentric: Miss Bellringer, Mrs. Rainbird, Mrs. Pauncefoot, Lisa Dawn, to name a few. This is an impressive debut.
The First Lady
ELLIOTT ROOSEVELT's Murder at the Palace (St. Martin's Press, $15.95) is another in the series featuring his mother, Eleanor, a super sleuth or, as her husband, the president, dubs her, the White House Sherlock Holmes and an "officious intermeddler." As with last year's The White House Pantry Murder, the author deals with murder in elevated places: the cudgeling to death of Sir Anthony Brooke-Hardinge in Buckingham Palace at a cocktail party to which he -- in a bizzare gesture -- invited his worst enemies. Sir Anthony's enemies are legion, for his villany is without bounds. A liar, cheat and thief, he photographs his female conquests and shows the pictures to his most recent mate; buys and sells black market art; boasts about his sexual and business chicanery -- all under the cover of respectability. When Mrs. Roosevelt expresses her sympathy to the victim's wife, the wife retorts: "Don't waste your sympathy . . . I couldn't be happier."
Why would Sir Anthony throw a party for his enemies and how could he be bashed senseless in the study next to the parlor where the guests had gathered? Aided by Sir Alan Burton, senior inspector of Scotland Yard (who teamed with her in the last novel), Mrs. Roosevelt quietly, good-naturedly, persistently tracks down the murderer. The suspects: Sir Anthony's mistress; his wife, now a procuress; a business partner, utterly ruined by the victim and now a waiter; a theater investor who stands to profit from Anthony's death; and, unexpectedly, Inspector Burton himself, once publicly humiliated by the deceased.
Roosevelt presents a classic mystery here, replete with floor plans, time charts and a denouement that springs to a surprising conclusion. But what lifts this novel above so many others is its historical ambience: Mrs. Roosevelt is a wise, resourceful, energetic and wholly likeable sleuth, in London in 1942 for the purpose of lifting the morale of American troops; Winston Churchill makes a cameo appearance at a dinner party and announces General Montgomery's offensive in Egypt; Dwight Eisenhower shows up at a topless bar; and King George (who stutters), the Queen Mother and the young princesses all promenade upon the palace's polished floors. Even the author appears modestly, as a schoolboy.
The background of Blitz-ravaged London is also well-conveyed: "Quiet crows lined the street as they approached St. Paul's Cathedral, but Mrs. Roosevelt, stunned by the devastation all around her, hardly noticed them. The City was gutted, and the newsreels she had seen of the Blitz were here translated into reality: block after block of homes and businesses reduced to cold, ugly, dusty rubble. The few people walking or cycling through the ruined streets seemed as cold and dusty as the ruins around them."
Roosevlt's fifth mystery novel is entirely readable, with a puzzle that surprises, enough historical accuracy to be convincing, and occasional bon mots from the First Lady: " 'It is unrealistic I believe,' said Mrs. Roosevelt, 'ever to believe that any specific human being killed another. Personally, I wait for the incontrovertible evidence.' "
SOMETHING IS rotten in Yorkshire, in the Rigby Rep's production of Hamlet. A Happy English Child (Doubleday, $12.95) is Ursula Zilinsky's literate, witty, trippingly paced novel about murder in full view of an audience. King Claudius, played by the lovable Ally Jagat, habitually laces his goblet in the last scene with Bombay gin; however, this time the poisoned goblet is indeed poisoned. There is a full cast of suspects: Timothy Silkerk, Ally's male lover; the seamstress who cannot abide Ally because he is an Anglo-Indian; the cleaning woman, Mrs. Barnes, her husband, the carpenter, and their pudgy, maudlin daughter, Verity; and John Silk, the mild-mannered director of the Rep. On hand to flush out the miscreant is Inspector Winterkill, whose steady sleuthing proves the truth of Shakespeare's "Foul deeds will rise,/ Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes."
Zilinsky writes with great flourish. Because most of her characters are actors and actresses, she can stitch her speech in scarlet, with literary references and Wildean wit: "Every beastliness from mayhem on the motorway to nuclear war is caused by a lack of civility"; "Ally doesn't act . . . he just has cheekbones"; "Her fat knees bulged over the top like nicely risen popovers." Anyone who likes his mysteries with a dash of literature will revel in the references to, of course, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Bleak House and "To His Coy Mistress" -- the list goes on.
For Hamlet buffs familiar with the play, here are further clues to the murder (Zilinsky has too much restraint to provide these):
"A little more than kin and less than kind!" (I,ii,68-69)
"Frailty, thy name is woman!" (I,ii,152)
"I know a hawk from a handsaw." (II,ii,389).
Guest Mysteries columnist Paul Piazza is chairman of the English Department at St. Albans School. Jean M. White will resume the Mysteries column next month.