By Jennifer Haigh

Morrow. 394 pp. $24.95

Like The Hours, the Pulitzer Prize-winning triptych by Michael Cunningham that was recently turned into a critically acclaimed movie, Jennifer Haigh's Mrs. Kimble tells the interlocking stories of three very different women. This time, however, the women are linked across the years not by the universality of literature but by the dishonesty of a louse. Haigh's women are the first, second and third wives of Ken Kimble, a Christian preacher turned swindling real-estate mogul who does nothing to dispel the commonly held belief that those two professions attract more than their share of con men.

It's a clever premise, backed up by three remarkably well-limned Mrs. Kimbles, each of whom comes tantalizingly alive thanks to the author's considerable gift for conjuring up a character with the tiniest of details. Only Mr. Kimble remains maddeningly mysterious, not only to the three wives whom he successfully dupes but to the reader as well. It's an unfortunate misstep in this admirable debut novel. For although the story is not about Mr. Kimble but about the messy wake that his breathtakingly selfish passage through life creates, his unexplained and at times unbelievable actions are all we are given in the way of a clunky plot.

Birdie, the first Mrs. Kimble, opens the novel, drunkenly defacing the family photos while her young son Charlie places his father's heads, which have been cut from the portraits, into a pile. It's 1969 in Richmond, and Mr. Kimble, who had been working as a preacher, has blown town in disgrace with Moira, a 19-year-old college dropout. Birdie's struggle to perform even the simple task of putting food into a shopping cart draws us into her shattered world, even when visits from a clueless social worker strain our credulity. These are the book's most polished chapters, and Birdie and Charlie are its most well-drawn characters. It is with reluctance that we move on to the second Mrs. Kimble.

We first see Joan at a poolside party in Florida where she meets Ken, fresh from Virginia with his teenage conquest in tow. Joan is a 39-year-old unmarried career woman (she writes for Newsweek) who has just faced down breast cancer and a mastectomy. Look for her picture under the word "vulnerable" in the dictionary. She's come to the Sunshine State to settle her father's estate, which includes a house where "a movie star should live," the suave line Kimble tosses out when he conveniently shows up at her place as a groundskeeper. Unsurprisingly, in no time Kimble has dropped the dropout, declared his Jewishness to Joan's uncle and joined the family real-estate firm. A miracle worker indeed.

The third Mrs. Kimble doesn't appear for another decade -- after a few more curious plot twists (kidnapping his children from the first Mrs. Kimble to please the childless second Mrs. Kimble is one of the more strained). We've actually seen Dinah before: She was the babysitter for Kimble's two children back in Virginia, a beautiful woman whose face was marred by a birthmark. Kimble, now widowed since the death of his second wife, literally bumps into her with his car in Washington, D.C., where she works as a chef. After the accident, he cares for her, pays for an operation to remove her disfigurement and eventually takes her on as his third wife. Despite the birth of a son and the success of Kimble's business, however, this marriage proves no more successful than the first two.

The whys of those failures are never really explored, but Haigh certainly has succeeded in creating a trio of memorable characters. The three Mrs. Kimbles -- a deserted housewife, a frustrated feminist and a disappointed mother -- present the whole gamut of family values gone awry. Hollywood, take note. Haigh has done the hard part. All you need to add is plot. *

Margo Hammond is book editor for the St. Petersburg Times.