FLEUR DE LEIGH'S LIFE OF CRIME

By Diane Leslie

Simon & Schuster. 301 pp. $23

Are kids getting smarter younger? Or is this a new trend in literary fiction: the world sifted through the eyes of scary-smart prepubescent girls? In Nicholson Baker's "The Everlasting Story of Nory," we have the point of view of a 9-year-old. In this savvy first novel by Diane Leslie, the narrator is 11. Maybe there's such a thing as an ideal narrative age for coming-of-age novels: 14 and a little older for boys (Adrian Mole and Holden Caulfield being the standards); 11 and even younger for girls.

Here the story is told by Fleur de Leigh, the only child of an unsentimental Hollywood couple who believe in "no baby talk, no coddling, no childish games." "Why weren't nannies forced to sign contracts with their employers like actors did with studios?" she wonders, sensibly enough.

Fleur is a victim of serial nannies. Flaky as they are, these transient caregivers are needed--and for the most part heeded--by the poor little rich girl they end up loving and leaving in short order. (To Fleur's credit, the one nanny she knows not to heed is the psychotic Miss Hoate with her phobia of chenille and delusions of medical expertise coveted by the communists--it's the '50s, after all.) Miss Hoate ("the h in my name is silent") is finally led away in a straitjacket, but only with the help of Jeff, an overweight cop who happens to be the former boyfriend of an earlier nanny called Glendora.

Linking nannies is only one of Fleur's many achievements as uncoverer of mysteries surrounding adult behavior. Other discoveries involve the no less crucial matter of her missing silver-dollar collection and the puzzle of how her baby teeth end up in a Beverly Hills orphanage. The clues, not to give the plot away, can be found in Fleur's mother's idea of tax-deductible contributions.

Guided by the spirit of "The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Half-Hour," her mother's weekly program, Fleur trains her hawk-eyed gaze and pitch-perfect ear on the characters and customs that define her world, in particular those of her outrageously egotistical parents. A more unconventional pair in terms of family values would be hard to find in recent American fiction. Heartless, soulless ("soul, mole, down a hole," Fleur's Grandma Glo jeers), Charmian and Maurice are funny and monstrous at the same time.

Charmian "seemed to think that, like nannies, friends were readily replaceable. [She] reserved her sorrow for the loss of objects." And yet, Fleur admits, "just when I could no longer pretend I didn't despise my mother, she beguiled me." Maurice is a sadistic television game show host who enjoys tormenting his guests, tries to run over his belligerent mother with his Cadillac and makes light of his daughter's concussion from a car accident. He also finds "cooking odors, perspiration, perfume, scents of any kind . . . an intrusion on his inalienable right to privacy. Over and above that, he was allergic." On the other hand, his use of invective is original and enables Fleur to swear with aplomb.

It's a rare voice that succeeds in bringing to life the bitter comedy of childhood under siege from unreliable adults--and succeeds without the victim's whine. In Fleur de Leigh, Diane Leslie has created that voice: wry, ironic, still trusting, still touchingly tolerant. It's an even rarer voice that can bring to life a period as dated and overdone as Hollywood in the '50s. This, too, the author pulls off. Celebrity villas designed by set directors rather than architects, a therapist for children of the rich and famous who wants to televise her "psychodrama" sessions, Egyptian theme parties--it's all there, bright and crisp, like a lovingly restored cut from a grainy old classic.

Somehow, it's only the adults who seem dazzled if not blinded by the staged realities of Hollywood. Fleur, from the start, knows better--even about Santa Claus. " 'He was fabricated,' my parents had said, and I assumed they meant by screenwriters." In this fabricated universe, Christmas itself could use a face lift, and Charmian wonders why the "tasteless tableau" of a creche couldn't be redesigned more in keeping with "Beverly Hills decorum."

"We all steal from each other," an actress tells Fleur. "She steals my fable; I steal her come-hither smirk . . . it's our business to steal. We improve the material. Then we play it to the hilt." You have to hand it to a kid like Fleur. She knows when the grown-ups are stealing, when they're playing it to the hilt. And because movies are made by grown-ups, she catches on that even they aren't going to offer the answers to her life's questions. "How could they when they were concocted by scriptwriters just like my mother?"

Wendy Law-Yone, whose most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango"