REMAINS SILENT

By Michael Baden and Linda Kenney

Knopf. 230 pp. $22.95

Michael Baden is a former New York City medical examiner and a nationally known forensic expert. His wife, Linda Kenney, is a civil rights lawyer and legal analyst. Together, they have written a first novel that has been bought by a prestigious publishing house and issued in a first printing of 250,000 copies. They are no doubt articulate people who will be impressive when interviewed on the morning shows, and they may well sell out that huge first printing. Their novel, "Remains Silent," which features a male medical examiner and a crusading female lawyer, is an example of a new trend toward romantic suspense fiction that features lovesick lasses who are at least as concerned with shopping and finding Mr. Right as they are with crime-solving.

Their heroine, Philomena "Manny" Manfreda, is feisty, five years out of law school and a "tenacious fighter for the underdog." Her hair color shifts from blond to black to flaming red. She drives a Porsche convertible and lives in a tiny apartment in midtown Manhattan with a Murphy bed and her beloved poodle, Mycroft, who is of course named for Sherlock Holmes's older brother. She has an assistant named Kenneth who is into cross-dressing. She is into Chanel suits, Ralph Lauren bathrobes, Donna Karan microfiber dresses, Seven jeans, and cropped leather Gaultier jackets over black T-shirts. She has a long-suffering Italian mother in New Jersey. And, in her ladylike way, she has the hots for New York's deputy chief medical examiner, Dr. Jake Rosen.

Jake is 45 or so. He slouches, dresses badly and has "the unkempt hair of a mad scientist," but poor Manny has "a ridiculous impulse to comb it for him just to feel it under her fingers." She is angry with him at first, for having testified for the other side in a big trial, but she can't resist that mad-scientist hair, not to mention his cool way with a cadaver. They become involved in a mystery involving human bones unearthed during the construction of a shopping mall upstate. The remains of four people are found and may have come from a nearby mental institution, now closed. Jake's mentor, an aging medical examiner, is the first to study the bones, and he is soon murdered. As Jake and Manny press the investigation, someone starts trying to kill them too. The crime story is interesting enough, but it fades into the background as the novel tantalizes us with the cosmic question of whether Jake and Manny will ever, ever, ever make their way into her Murphy bed.

I would never, never, never reveal the answer to that burning question, but I will warn that we must endure endless sappy sentiments before we find out. In one agonizing, supposedly comic scene, Jake recruits Manny to help him with an autopsy. She is too proud to refuse, even though she loathes the sights and smells that ensue, as she informs us in an italicized inner monologue: "He's enjoying himself. I hate him. . . . Sadist. . . . He handles the scalpel masterfully. Not a nick. What would it feel like if he shaved my legs? . . . He's peeling poor Mrs. Alessis open like an orange. . . . Don't faint. Don't vomit. . . . I'm never going inside a butcher shop again."

Their growing passion is expressed in ever more urgent italicized bulletins: "I don't want him to leave. . . . Is he humoring me or does he actually want me with him? . . . Handsome. Almost beautiful. . . . Is he about to propose? . . . I'm comfortable with him. . . . May we stay like this forever." Jake too has his palpitations. She comes to his office "haggard -- and beautiful. . . . His heart, he realized, was dancing. I can't lose her. She's too important."

The thrill of romance is interrupted by scenes of danger that have an air of Nancy Drew make-believe about them. Manny goes to a dark and dangerous place and feels "Breath. Human breath" behind her, but when she turns there's nobody there. When a man attacks her with a knife, he is content to leave her with a flesh wound and a warning, and Jake is there to kiss her and make it well. (In a moment of abandon, while putting on pajamas, Manny "gave her tush a wiggle" and Jake "looked at her like a man, not a physician.") Even when a bomb goes off at his apartment ("Please God, not dead -- I take back everything I said about him"), he and his hippie brother survive to joke about it. In time, the villains are foiled, and dark secrets from the past are revealed, but what matters is that Jake has won Manny, and Manny can at last claim her "dear cutter-up of corpses."

Novels like this have proliferated of late and are essentially romance fiction built around a crime story that provides both a plot and an excuse for the heroines to meet hunky cops and lawyers. "Remains Silent," which does include some interesting facts about bones and autopsies, is probably a cut above the average such novel, but the emphasis remains on serious shopping and tasteful hints of sex. The subgenre has been called chick-lit mysteries and sassy-girl crime novels, but on the basis of all the dumb jokes in "Remains Silent," I am tempted to call this novel nitwit-lit. In any event, it's not my idea of a good time.