By Mike Phillips

St. Martin's. 246 pp. $17.95

LIKE THE murdered Aston Edwards, Mike Phillips's novel The Late Candidate is full of passions, ulterior motives and unfulfilled promises. On its face, Phillips's book is a mystery, but this novel, and every face in it, is slightly twisted. The murdered Edwards, a black councillor in an un-named North London borough, initially appears to have been killed for purely political reasons. But as we come to know Edwards through the eyes of his childhood friend, black journalist Sammy Dean, the motives behind his life and stabbing death are marbled by the confusing politics of race, sex and class.

The police, overburdened and perhaps knowing that a zealous murder investigation could set off a powderkeg, arrest a young black man and prepare to wash their hands of the whole matter. Dean is brought into the case by the youth's mother, Eva, a country woman: "She hugged me tight. She was a big woman, and it was like being embraced by a bear dressed in pillows. She sobbed a little and the tears ran down my neck. Against me I felt the pillows heaving."

Using a writing assignment as cover, Dean begins investigating Edwards's life in order to explain his death.

Dean and Edwards are both immigrants from an unidentified Caribbean island. "We had been born on the same day in the same street of our small village, and we'd been together every day that I could remember for the first dozen years of our lives," Dean recalls when he learns of Edwards's murder. "Later, when we met in London, we would marvel over the fact that, after all, many years and thousands of miles away, we had come to live in the same place. Now it was over."

But not really. As much as it is a murder mystery, The Late Candidate is an exploration of race, class, sexuality and political corruption. The question of whodunit soon becomes secondary.

Phillips's examination of the workings of local government and the displacement of the Irish old guard by the new immigrants -- blacks and other minorities -- and gays is fascinating. So are the sexuality and sexual politics that run through and connect seemingly disparate lives.

Death is merely a backdrop. Dean, the narrator, is a black man divorced from a white woman, the father of an adolescent son. Never seen or heard, the wife becomes a presence through the attenuated relationship between father and son. After a brief telephone call from his son, Dean puts down the phone. "I went back to watching the sky feeling disturbed and angry," he writes. "My son had never seen the place where I was born. He wouldn't even be able to imagine me as a child, playing cricket in the middle of a village street with Aston."

Sophie, Dean's girlfriend, is a photographer. Like most of the characters in The Late Candidate, we are never sure where she came, or is coming, from. "When I first met her she'd had curly black hair. Now it was brown with light gold streaks, and the way she looked had changed, from the recognizable Latin American with a hefty dash of African blood, to someone indeterminately Mediterranean."

In Edwards's world, the atmosphere is thick with myriad agendas and passions; no one really knows anyone else. His death disrupts these plots and lusts, and it is murder, not history or blood or intimacy, that brings people out of their hiding place.

Early on, it becomes clear that the boy didn't kill Edwards and as we get to know him through Dean and the recollections of those he interviews, the field of likely suspects widens. Edwards's white wife, Suzie, who has lived with his infidelity for years? One of the Parker clan, Irish politicans, businessmen and relatives of his youthful and pregnant lover whom Edwards happens to be investigating for defrauding the govenment with a contract scam? Dalton, the leader of the youth center Edwards supported, also under investigation for financial irregularities?

It could be anyone, because as Dean tells us about Edwards, "He'd been kind and a mate, and the only things in which he was really interested were politics, sex and hanging out . . .

Dean, Edwards's fellow politicans, the Parker clan, Spid the lesbian councillor and the machinations of local government officials as they try to fortify their position against the encoraching immigrant hordes are what keep the pages turning. Therein lies the basic problem with The Late Candidate. The portraits of characters and the questions their lives evoke are stronger and more compelling that the plot. A few chapters in, one finds themselves caring far less about who did it than why so many might have.

Phillips drops intriguing hints, asides and occasional bombshells, but too often leaves the reader hanging. We want to know more about Dean's upbringing, his marriage, his life before Edwards murder.

Some scenes are hilarious, particularly when, male prerogative firmly entrenched, Dean the detective crashes a party. "It wasn't until I had made my way into the front room on the first floor, where they were dancing, that I realised apart from the odd man and the two downstairs everyone I'd seen so far was female . . . I'd assumed that the curious looks I was getting were to do with me being a stranger among them, but actually I must have stuck out like a flashing neon sign. If I kept on striding about gazing at women they'd probably sling me out on my ear, and even if I found Kim, she certainly wouldn't greet me with open arms."

Wheedling his way into an apartment building, he wins over the landlord with his knowledge of Schumann, picked up from a brother who lived in Germany. The landlord "kept shooting sharp little glances at me. . . Most of the whites I encountered thought about black people in rigidly limited categories. Step outside those and they went into a state of mild shock. Once off balance they were credulous and vulnerable. Sometimes it made life easier."

Phillips' style is understated and sometimes downright desultory. It works because it fits the persona of Sammy Dean, the archetypal alienated journalist/private eye, a man detached from himself and the world, trying to make contact with life through a dead man.

In most mysteries, the excitement is in the ending, tying up the pieces. Finishing The Late Candidate," I found myself wanting more. Without the obligation to put the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the mystery, the thought of what Phillip could tell us about local politics, the working class, British immigrants and sexual passion is infinitely more exciting than who killed Aston Edwards.

Jill Nelson is a Washington free-lance writer.