Fighting the Waterbaggers

If one believes the hype, summer is the season of light-hearted books, as effortless to get through as a lazy afternoon. But when it comes to mysteries, lighthearted reads and dark deeds sometimes collide in unexpected ways. Take, for instance, veteran mystery writer Marcia Muller's third Soledad County thriller, the brooding Cape Perdido (Mysterious, $24.95). The setting is the Perdido River, 27 miles of vibrant, navigable Northern California water coursing toward the sea through air redolent of pine resin and eucalyptus. "It is wonderful," the narrator observes, "that all this has been preserved in its natural state for everyone's enjoyment."

Yet an ominous force hovers over Cape Perdido in the form of Aqueduct Systems, a corporation that plans to bag the river's fresh water in a gigantic blue plastic balloon -- 200 yards long and several stories high -- and transport it by barge to water-starved Southern California. The "waterbaggers," as the locals so aptly call them, meet vociferous opposition from the Friends of the Perdido, a grass-roots environmental group led by Bernina Tobin, a Maine transplant, and aided by Joseph Openshaw, a noted environmentalist and California Indian who has returned home to join the fight. Also, a New York based nonprofit has sent out Jessie Domingo, a young community liaison specialist, to work on the Friends' behalf vis-a-vis the corporation, the media and Fitch Collier, a brilliant water-rights attorney who will plead their case before the state's Water Board.

But tensions abound among the team members: Bernina is a rabid "feminist ecologist" who blames the entire male sex for environmental crimes in general and the attempted defilement of her adopted home in particular; Joseph is involved in a love-hate relationship with two old friends; and Jessie clashes endlessly with Fitch, who's addicted to using his cell phone and undercutting his colleague's effectiveness. Further complications arise when the group learns that Aqueduct Systems may be part of a larger conglomerate with designs on more than this one project. Before it's all over, someone takes a potshot at the bag, an arson fire devastates a landmark business, people disappear, and decades-old crimes eating away at the principals are revealed and solved.

Muller, who was recently named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America for her 26 novels, shows with every chapter her control over the suspense form, whether it's bringing in Soledad County Sheriff's Deputy Rhoda Swift -- who works behind the scenes investigating current and past crimes -- or doling out information about the connections among characters in short, measured chapters that keep the reader engaged. And while some of the plot twists may not be totally surprising, readers will nonetheless be well entertained and might even learn something about water conservation. If so, that's a bonus in addition to the other joys of reading this smoothly told, engrossing yarn.

Trail of Death

Engrossing, too, is Rick Riordan's Mission Road (Bantam, $24), the sixth Tres Navarre mystery. Set variously in San Antonio and Austin, Tex., this has been one of the more rewarding and award-winning series of recent years. Long-time readers have watched Tres return to his home town of San Antonio from Berkeley; get involved in cases that take him into ethnic and economic corners of the Southwest not ordinarily seen; begin and end relationships with a colorful array of supporting characters; and manage a long-distance love affair with Maia Lee, a strong-willed Chinese-American attorney. In the process, Riordan's narrative style has evolved, too, from a traditional first-person approach to a more experimental structure that blends Tres's first-person voice and the third-person viewpoints of other characters.

That technique is used to great effect in Mission Road, which finds Ana about to blow the whistle on the murderer of Frankie White, a psychopath who may have been responsible for the 1987 murders of several women whose bodies were dumped on Mission Road, "an ancient trail connecting the five Spanish missions of San Antonio." The site of murders dating back to the 18th century, Mission Road was also where Frankie himself was found bludgeoned to death. Ana thinks she's found the killer, but then she is shot in her own home and left for dead.

The police, led by homicide lieutenant Etch Hernandez -- who worked with Ana's deceased mother, a pioneering cop on the SAPD -- think the shooter is Ana's husband, Ralph, whose DNA was found at the scene of the White murder and who may have had a long-standing grudge against White. Hernandez will stop at nothing to bring Ralph in, even if it means stepping outside the law he's sworn to uphold.

Riordan adeptly shifts the narrative from Ana's point of view to a series of Mission Road crimes dating back some forty years, and to Tres, who has to cope with Ralph's sudden appearance on his doorstep with the cops on his heels. The pair's breathless run from the law leads them to some of San Antonio's more colorful neighborhoods and characters, ending up in the lavish compound of Frankie's father, a dying mobster. But the heart of Mission Road belongs to Etch Hernandez, a man with deep and conflicted feelings for his dead partner, and Maia, who tries mightily to extract Tres from the fix he's in while also putting him on the spot about the future of their changing relationship. That and an unexpected twist in the book's final pages make Mission Road another satisfying entry in this rule-breaking series.

Crime Waves

Jeff Shelby's Killer Swell (Dutton, $23.95) is a first mystery featuring San Diego surfer-turned-private investigator Noah Braddock, and as such it hews more closely to the conventions of the P.I. subgenre. Noah is asked by wealthy La Jolla resident Marilyn Crier to locate her missing daughter, Kate. Kate, who dumped Noah a decade ago at her parents' instigation, was last seen in San Diego during the Fourth of July holiday and has failed to catch a plane back to her home in San Francisco. After a brief interview with Kate's physician husband, Noah rather implausibly finds Kate's body in the trunk of a Mercedes, the first of several nasty surprises.

The case brings Noah face-to-face with the class differences that drove a wedge between him and Kate, as well as a host of more current and troubling questions about Kate's possible association with some truly dangerous people. And what should Noah do about his attraction to Emily, Kate's older sister? Shelby keeps the questions flying as he introduces family secrets, the DEA, Noah's newest ex-girlfriend and Carter Hamm, Noah's surfer-dude sidekick, who, it turns out, can do a whole lot more than shoot the curl.

Two-thirds of the way into the investigation, a homicide detective says to Noah: "Everyone keeps telling me you're a pain in the ass but a smart guy. Well, I see the first part, but I have yet to see the second." It's a remark that could well sum up Killer Swell -- snappy dialogue and descriptions give the book a bad-boy edge, but it's blunted by forensic and police procedural gaffes plus a plot that sometimes is a little too contrived for its own good. Yet there's enough promise here, in both the skillful use of underutilized San Diego locations and Braddock's relationship with that wild man Hamm, to make for a diverting read and raise hopes for catching a better wave of surfing and sleuthing the second time around.

Crashing Down

This is the second time at bat for Cassandra Perry, the twentysomething heroine of Charlotte Carter's Trip Wire (One World/Ballantine; paperback, $12.95), part of a smart series set in 1960s Chicago. Cassandra leaves her great Uncle Woody and Aunt Ivy's spacious apartment in black, upper-middle-class Hyde Park to move into an urban commune. From the book's opening lines, it's clear that Cassandra, a "freckle-faced not-so-good-looking little black girl from the South Side," desperately wants to be a part of the "acid-dropping, yes to love, no to authority, eating life with a spoon, and whatever I was like last year, it's all different now" scene.

Her housemates on the newly integrated North Side are outward proof of her idyllic new life: Earth mother Mia Boone, the group's spiritual cheerleader and chief cook and bottle washer; Wilton "Wretched" Mobley (so named for his obsession with Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth), Mia's black lover and Cassandra's platonic soul mate; Cliff Tobin, a descendant from Old Yankee money who identifies with the black poet Gwendolyn Brooks; Annabeth Riegel, a meatpacking heiress and aspiring actress; Barry Mayhew, a mid-thirties escapee from the wife and kids in suburbia; and Dan Zuni, a Native American. But the murders of some members of the commune and the disappearance of another soon thereafter shatter the group's vibe, along with Cassandra's illusions of peace and love: "Was the end at hand," she wonders, "our little experiment in democracy -- living right -- all over? Freedom, happiness, community, all finished so fast."

As Cassandra plunges into a search for the killers, readers will be drawn in by Carter's incisive observations of post-Democratic Convention Chicago, complete with its South Side gangsters, Hyde Park black elite, hard-bitten cops and conspiracies. Yet for all Trip Wire's political intrigue, Carter writes about the '60s with an assurance and clarity that will have readers searching their closets for tie-dyed T-shirts and bell bottoms or dusting off Cream's "Wheels of Fire." Not exactly a bad way to spend a summer afternoon. *

Paula L. Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series, the next volume of which, "Strange Bedfellows," will be published in January.