WILLIAM MURRAY's The Getaway Blues (Bantam, $17.95) is delightful getaway reading with or without the blues. It's a Runyonesque tale with a cast of wonderfully quirky characters who gather at the rail at Santa Anita -- eternally optimistic bettors, trainers, jockeys, owners and track hangers-on.
So what if the story is slow out of the starting gate? Murray, a New Yorker staff writer and author of the magazine's "Letter From Italy" column, still comes up with a winner. First of all, there is the irrepressible Shifty Lou Anderson, horse player-magician, who is a great companion for a day at the races. Shifty is making his third appearance as the narrator of the series. (When the Fat Man Sings was the maiden run, followed by The King of the Nightcap.)
Shifty is in top form as he relates how dwindling funds -- bad picks at the track and few gigs for a magician -- force him to take a temporary job as chauffeur to an aging, eccentric playboy who has decided to make a "quick, graceful exit" from the world without pain or mess. Lucius J. Bedlington, who has a quote from Gilbert and Sullivan for every occasion, has chosen the casket, arranged the funeral service and built a miniature Greek temple with the entrance inscription: "Is life a thorn?/ Then count it not a whit!/ Man is well done without it . . ."
" 'The Yeoman of the Guard.' Apropos, don't you think?" Lucius tells Shifty as he proudly conducts a tour of his final resting place on a secluded plot of land in a high canyon.
Among the colorful characters who enliven The Getaway Blues is Pericles Thanassis, who owns the Eternal Peace funeral home and admires his client's stoic acceptance of what he believes is a terminal illness. Pericles deplores the lack of elegance and taste in modern funerary arrangements. Look at the Etruscans and Egyptians, he tells Shifty. Now there were people "who knew how to pass away."
Well, Pericles is to be quite upset when Lucius puts his suicide and funeral on hold after Melinda, a stunning brunette, enters his life via a third ex-wife, who says Melinda is her daughter without specifying a father. Lucius is rejuvenated as he escorts the lively and luscious Melinda to the racetrack and around town.
Shifty, done out of his temporary chauffeuring job, consoles himself with courting Amber Clark, a secretary who works for Bedlington's lawyer. He finds Amber strangely and irresistibly fascinating, a young woman from a wealthy family who is obsessed with health food, environmental pollution and injustice in the world. "A Ralph Nader in drag" is the way he describes her after his first date.
Yet Shifty finds himself falling in love with Amber, who gives him "a feeling that I, too, could make a difference, however small, in the human condition." After a lover's tiff, Shifty takes a gig on a cruise ship and returns to find Amber has been brutally murdered. For the police, she is another victim of the West Side slasher.
Uncomfortable with the serial killer theory, Shifty tries to find out more about Amber and her life. Her lawyer-boss doesn't want to talk to Shifty. At the track, Shifty notices Melinda is keeping some strange company. He turns up drugs, high-priced hookers, bank fraud and fixed races as he tracks down Amber's murderer.
The plot of The Getaway Blues does stumble on the homestretch. But it's great fun to go along for the ride with Shifty and his turf buddies, including Maury the Mooch and Whodoyalike. Bones of Contention NOT EVEN a glacial avalanche can cover up murder when Gideon Oliver, the physical anthropologist, is given some rags and a few old bones to examine 30 years later. Gideon, who cringes at the mention of his popular-press nickname as the "skeleton detective," needs only the remains of a skull to spot that the head of one of the victims had been pierced by an ice axe before the avalanche struck.
Icy Clutches (Mysterious Press, $16.95), by Aaron Elkins, who won an Edgar for one of the earlier Gideon Oliver novels (Old Bones), transports his anthropologist-sleuth to Alaska, where Gideon looks forward to a restful break while his wife, Julie, a forest ranger met on an another adventure, attends a training session. Also staying at the Glacial Bay Lodge, otherwise deserted in the off-season, is Professor M. Audley Tremaine, the celebrated host of a popular TV science program.
Nearly 30 years earlier Tremaine, then a college professor, had led a botanical expedition to study vegetation on the Tirku Glacier. Somehow Tremaine, trapped in a crevasse for 2l hours, had survived an earthquake-released avalanche that swallowed up the other three members of the expedition. As a publicity stunt to launch a soon-to-be-published book, Tremaine has assembled relatives of the dead trio at the Glacial Bay Lodge to erect a memorial plaque on the barren glacial spur.
Gideon, who is getting bored with his restful vacation, is delighted when he is asked to examine some bone fragments discovered when the memorial committee visited the site of the tragedy. All he has is a jaw piece with a third-year molar, some ankle bones and part of a femur. But that is enough for him to determine that the bone fragments are from a male Caucasian above average in size and somewhere around 25 years old -- a description that fits both James Pratt and Steve Fisk, the two young male scientists lost on the expedition along with a female colleague.
Part of a skull discovered on a return search suggests murder to Gideon, who interprets its markings as evidence of trauma from a blow with an ice axe. But who was killed and what was the scene on the icy glacial spur before the avalanche roared down?
When Tremaine is found hanged, Gideon and FBI Agent John Lau, an old friend dispatched from Seattle to help with the murder investigation, aren't fooled by the apparent suicide. The manuscript of Tremaine's book has disappeared along with any secrets from the past that he was going to reveal.
Elkins has come up with a challenging puzzle for his skeleton detective. Unfortunately, he pads the tale with repetitive scientific explanations and speculation. The best thing about Icy Clutches -- after Gideon, of course, who is always an amiable companion -- is the Alaskan background with its majestic scenery and natural phenomena.
At one point, Gideon picks up a dingy, melting chunk of ice and muses: "When this fell, Mozart was still alive . . . Keats hadn't even been born, or Shelley. Paganini was just a kid. The Reign of Terror was just beginning in France." Cre`me de la Crime THE newly republished English translation of Madame Maigret's Own Case (Helen and Kurt Wolff/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $17.95) painfully reminds us of the loss of Georges Simenon, a master storyteller and one of the giants of modern detective fiction.
An anonymous tip written on a dirty piece of wrapping paper is found one morning in the mailbox of the Paris Police Judiciaire: "The bookbinder on Rue de Turenne has burned a body in the furnace." A search turns up a bloodstained blue suit, two human teeth and a neighbor's report of thick chimney smoke. Still there is not enough evidence to hold the bookbinder, who withstands hours of interrogation without making a confession.
An equally baffling mystery awaits Chief Inspector Maigret when he returns to his apartment on schedule for lunch, only to find smoke rising from a scorched chicken-carrot-onion casserole and no Mme. Maigret to share the meal with.
More than half an hour later, a flustered and breathless Mme. Maigret arrives home. On trips to the dentist over recent weeks, she explains, she had met a "nice lady" with a small white hat and shared a park bench with her on several occasions. That morning the woman suddenly dashed off, asking Mme. Maigret to watch her young child for a few minutes. As Mme. Maigret watched the time for her dental appointment pass, the minutes became two hours before the mother came by in a taxi, swooped up the child and left without an explanation.
The usually shy and diffident Mme. Maigret proves herself as dogged a detective as her husband. She tracks down the milliner who designed the hat for a rich, elderly countess and learns it was given to a maid-companion. Her sleuthing provides valuable information for Maigret as he sifts through the ashes to find what was burned in the bookbinder's furnace.
Written 40 years ago, Madame Maigret's Own Case in not a period piece. Simenon, who died last year, created a fictional world in which Chief Inspector Jules Maigret lives suspended in time, puffing his pipe, sipping brandy, soaking up the ambience of a case ("think bargee," he once said while working on a case involving two murders that occurred on a Seine barge), interrogating suspects, often feeling sorrowful for those who resort to crime under the pressure of circumstances -- and going home for lunch with Mme. Maigret. Hymn to Murder MARGARET YORKE, the veteran British author, discarded her conventional Oxford don-amateur sleuth Patrick Grant more than l5 years ago to turn to psychological suspense novels that focus on ordinary people whose lives have been profoundly changed by something that happens, often beyond their control.
In Admit to Murder (Viking, $l6.95), the disappearance of a young woman is a tragedy followed by disastrous consequences more than a dozen years later. Louise Vaughan was 24 when she disappeared on her way home from choir practice. It is a devastating loss for her upper-class mother and father. For Norah Tyler, befriended by the family as a child fleeing the London blitz, Louise's disappearance means the end of the independent life that she has enjoyed in London. She returns home to help the family, which includes an unstable and malicious adopted son and an autocratic grandmother.
At the time of Louise's disappearance, it was a frustrating case for then-Detective Sgt. David Marsh. There was no trace, dead or alive, of the missing young woman. Now, years later, Detective Inspector Marsh has returned to his old beat and reopened the case as a personal challenge to see what might have been overlooked earlier. Old secrets surface, and murder and arson follow as lives once again are disrupted.
It all ends in a darkly ironic conclusion that is unsettling and disturbing. In Admit to Murder, detection is minimal. What fascinates is the revelation of character as ordinary people try to cope with events -- small or terrible -- that change their lives. Jean M. White frequently reviews mysteries for Book World on the third Sunday of the month.