- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

If you ignore the title that suggests a bodice ripper, Mary Higgins Clark’s Just Take My Heart (Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 336 pages) is a well thought out mystery and has a nice twist to it because a transplanted heart is a key to the plot. It kicks off neatly with the murder of Natalie Raines, a well known Broadway actress, and instantly moves into the emotional thicket of her relationship with her ex-husband and her doubts about her divorce. Fortunately, much of the book is occupied with the presentation of the trial of Greg Aldrich, the divorced husband who was so anxious for a reconciliation that he was stalking his former wife on the night of her death.

His defense is badly damaged by evidence from Jimmy Easton, a career criminal, that Aldrich had hired him to kill Natalie, and the hapless Aldrich finds himself on his way to death row. The prosecutor in the case is Emily Wallace, a young widow who has recently undergone a heart transplant, and her career may hinge on her courtroom success. She has been assigned to the case by the county prosecutor Edward Scott Wesley, a handsome 50- year-old with “midnight blue eyes” and he has left in no doubt its importance to her legal future. There are some smoothly tailored surprises, and although Emily wants to win the case, she has her doubts about Aldrich’s guilt. The identity of the murderer is neatly linked to Emily’s heart surgery and it’s an excellent choice of a book to take on a plane.

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Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (Simon & Schuster, $24, 320 pages) is a delightful spoof of a mystery about a detection agency in India and although it is lacking in any gentle charm, it is somehow reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s chronicles of detective work by the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana.

In this case, Vish Puri is the founder and managing director of Most Private Investigators Ltd. in a suburb called Defence Colony, in Delhi. He is struggling with his weight and his weakness for “hot crispy pakoras” that are forbidden by his wife, and he is also coping with a series of cases ranging from murder to whether a young man is an appropriate husband for the daughter of an important man.

Puri is assisted in his efforts by a staff of “undercover operatives” whom he has nicknamed Tubelight, Flush, Door Stop and Face Cream in accordance with their characteristics. For example, Tubelight has henna-dyed hair and is blind in one eye. Face Cream is a glamorous young woman whom he uses as “irresistible bait in a honey trap.” It’s difficult to resist such a cast of characters especially when their leader is a man who wears tweed caps and safari suits imported from London. Even more delicious is Puri’s mother, appropriately known as “Mummy,” who fancies herself as a detective too, and is convinced her son would not survive without her clandestine efforts on his behalf.

Indeed, Puri is the target of some ingenious assassination attempts like a samosa laced with arsenic and the spraying of his clothes with “a pheromone that attracted one-horned rhinos who can move surprisingly quickly.” The stories from “the files of India’s most private investigator” make hilarious reading and also paint a vivid picture of life in a modern Indian city. It’s all great fun.

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Anne Perry is an author who specializes in writing about the tribulations of detectives who are obliged to investigate the dark doings that lie beyond the lavish and elaborate social lives of London’s Victorian aristocracy and she does a well researched job of it. Execution Dock (Ballantine, $26, 320 pages) is an especially gruesome investigation of sadism, pornography and pedophilia led by superintendent William Monk of the Thames River police that leads him into the highest levels of the English judiciary. Ms. Perry has a knack for character and her Scuff, a tough little bandit of a river orphan, almost runs off with the book.

Monk and his wife, Hester, as always, are morally impeccable and high-minded almost to the point of exasperation, and it is usually a relief to find in Ms. Perry’s cast of characters someone who doesn’t live up to his or her shining reputation. She has unquestionably mastered her territory and her topic and established herself as a chronicler of a social dark side made more horrifying by its hypocrisy.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.