SARATOGA HEXAMETER

By Stephen Dobyns

Viking. 246 pp. $16.95

AS MUCH AS any other recent mystery, Saratoga Hexameter is great fun to read -- fun because Stephen Dobyns's sixth Charlie Bradshaw mystery is filled with more than the accustomed fare of whodunits, the murders, robberies, and other assorted misdeeds. As an added boon, the book has at its center cleverly inept poetry, greeting card doggerel with a bent toward pastiche and mockery, what literary detectives would label outrages against the imagination. Poetry is the clue, the motive, the solution wherein Bradshaw catches his culprits.

Dobyns's book, in fact, features three culprits as he smartly weaves the plots of three crimes, all involving amateurish verse of the worst sort and Dobyns's amiable, somewhat gullible common man of a private investigator. Bradshaw's mother's hotel is being robbed, a renowned literary critic is being terrorized at a poets' colony and elderly patients at a rest home are systematically being eliminated -- seemingly disparate episodes, yet cleverly linked by a criminal Muse.

Dobyns manages his stories adroitly. Why would a hotel thief leave poems as his calling cards? How can a critic of poetry be persecuted when he and his room are under 24-hour surveillance? Are the elderly patients of Long Meadows Retirement Community being murdered or are they merely dying in their sleep? The reader, like Bradshaw, is, for most of the book, baffled and eager to follow clues that take Bradshaw to an amusement park, a floating crap game and, his favorite haunt, the track. The supporting cast is also noteworthy. Bradshaw's best friend, fellow investigator Victor Plotz, is comically inept as he hopelessly chases would-be jewel thieves through hotel corridors; one of the crooks even hides behind a Donald Duck mask. Critic Alexander Luft, nicknamed "Windy," is overdrawn, but amusingly so.

Poetry, however, is the chief reason that this book is more than another well-executed mystery. Dobyns is a professor of English at Syracuse University and, like several mystery writers before him, a poet of some stature, having published seven volumes of poetry. His book is filled with allusions and parody. The villain's first message begins:

They are but fools

Who leave their jewels

Where thieves like me can take them

The verse echoes both Shakespeare and Joyce Kilmer, and one of the reader's great diversions in this book is tracking down literary sources, following up on faint echoes of literary masterpieces. The literary critic under attack is Alexander Luft (Alexander from Alexandrine, a verse line of iambic hexameter, and luft meaning wind in German, hence his nickname). A pompous, ommiscient critic, Luft speaks baroque nonsense: "The linear is a prosaic model . . ." and "Dante . . . was a novelist who never discovered his medium . . ." To a pingpong opponent, Luft exclaims, "First I will deconstruct you, then . . . demolish you!" At dinner, Luft asks Charlie, "What does it mean . . . to say that 'be' should be the 'finale' of 'seem?' "

Charlie's answer is unexpectedly apt. To infiltrate the poetry colony, Charlie poses as a poet who works for an advertising agency. Like everyone else, however, he is required to give a reading. A sample of Charlie's work: "A man eats a chicken every day for lunch,/ and each day the ghost of another chicken/ joins the crowd in the dining room." Cornered by Luft's probing questions, Charlie claims he is writing a series of cowboy poems and conceals his ignorance behind a screen of inane ramblings on his poetic theory: "I'm like an employment office . . . and my poems are the guys who wander in off the street and need work. . . . The blue collar element is the non-unionized creative impulse." Charlie's reading is a triumph of wit and satire. CLEARLY DOBYNS himself enjoys writing mysteries, finds it a source of entertainment. Professors, critics, poets, Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, private eyes -- all are gently skewered. The style is playfully satiric. A hotel guest has "hooters designed by John Philip Sousa. A tuba would of felt chagrined." Jockey Ted Davis has a face like a "peach pit." A hooker is called "a footsoldier of the heart." Victor Plotz, fantasizing what it would be like to sleep with a hotel guest, charges into her room, after she is robbed and, of course, stumbles on the carpet and falls on her bed: "Although this was exactly where he had imagined being, the circumstances were cruelly different." Later, this same detective friend says with a straight face, in yet another attempt to impress a woman, "I'm a detective. It's my job to deduce things." And one of the finest moments in the novel is Dobyns's description of Luft's response to a punch: "As the fist rushed through the air, Luft tried to find the words to encapsulate it, to verbally deconstruct it, to change it to language and so reduce it to nothing."

Of course, as all good mysteries should, this one too is solved -- if a bit too quickly and conventionally -- and all ends well: Charlie gets his men and the girl, untangles the riddle of the poems, save his mother's hotel and makes the rest home a haven for natural death. And for the literati who murder to dissect, Dobyns has even provided a theme. When asked why poetry is behind all of the murder and mayhem, Charlie answers: Poetry's "powerful stuff . . . powerful stuff."

Paul Piazza is chairman of the English Department at St. Alban's School.