- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

As someone who was the handmaiden of an elderly house for more than 30 years — you

clear up the problem of water in the basement just in time to replace the flashing on the roof — I always look forward to a new “Home Repair Is Homicide” mystery from Sarah Graves. And Mallets Aforethought (Bantam, $21.95, 294 pages) does not disappoint.

In fact, the mix is richer than usual, with the addition of housemeister Jake Tiptree’s fugitive father and a skeleton dressed for a Charleston contest waiting for the music to begin in a sealed-up room in a rundown Maine mansion.

Yes, the gang’s all here, though the addition of a second, much newer corpse means that the husband of Jake’s best friend is absent — behind bars, a suspect in the murder of the town of Eastport’s nastiest man. Jake has lots of reasons to want him cleared, not the least of which is that Jake’s friend is vastly, imminently, pregnant.

The plot of a “Home Repair” mystery takes every page of the book to play out, so don’t expect a synopsis. Do expect at least one very useful tip on home repair — I do hope you don’t need it — to go with the careful and sensitive development of characters, which I have learned to anticipate with pleasure. Not to mention that rich and well-developed plot.

• • •

Somehow I always pictured St. Louis as being wholesomely boring, or perhaps boringly wholesome, a view I might have to change after reading Robert J. Randisi’s Arch Angels (Thomas Dunne, $24.95, 399 pages). Someone is kidnapping and strangling little girls in St. Louis; someone (else?) is kidnapping and strangling little boys in Chicago. Do we have commuting or competing serial killers?

That is a question for Joe Keough and his partner, Harriet Connors, members of a fictional federal agency called the Serial Killer Task Force. Keough heads for St. Louis, where he has some history, while Connors heads for Chicago, where she has some history.

They both add some grief as they attempt to work with local law enforcement irritated by the arrival of “the feds.” Breaking down those barriers might prove more daunting than solving the crimes.

The arrival of an FBI profiler, a very young, very lovely woman, complicates the picture, especially after she suggests that Keough’s impressive record of solving murders might be the result, at least in part, of his having psychic powers. It’s an interesting byway that probably will get explored more as this series develops.

No fair telling you how it turns out. That would rob you of the pleasure of reading this book. So treat yourself.

• • •

No doubt hard-core followers of the Sherlock Holmes canon are gnashing their collective teeth because Laurie R. King has just given us The Game (Bantam, $23.95, 368 pages), a look at the fictional detective through the eyes of his equally intelligent wife, Mary Russell.

Well, we will leave them to their gnashing, because Mrs. King makes the old stuffed shirt look much more human, and infinitely more likable, by viewing him through the eyes of a loving woman. And what a woman. Mary is Sherlock’s equal, following where he leads only when he is the one who knows the way. When he is not around, she functions very well on her own, thank you.

This time around the trip takes the Holmes couple to India in search of the Irish lad who inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “Kim.” It’s been a long time since Kim was a lad and it’s been too long since His Majesty’s intelligence service has heard from one of its best operatives.

The trail leads into the palace of a maharaja, a man who has no purpose in life but to amuse himself. For someone with virtually unlimited power, vast wealth and a very high opinion of himself — well, we have seen this before.

Mary, caught up in this whirlwind, finds herself living in a luxurious prison. And the maharaja finds it is very difficult to keep Mary in a cage, no matter how gilded. “The Game” is as dry, sparkling and delightful as good champagne. Oh, yes, the boar-hunting sequence is not to be missed.

• • •

Aaron Elkins’ “skeleton detective,” Gideon Oliver, can’t even take a vacation without bumping into bones. Thank goodness. Otherwise we would not have Good Blood (Berkeley Prime Crime, $23.95, 293 pages), in which an Italian vacation turns into a busman’s holiday.

The Olivers are spending a few days at the familial villa of a friend, on an island in Lake Maggiore, when a child is kidnapped. A most professional, well-planned and successfully completed crime. When bones show up, Gideon is pressed into helping identify them. With relief, he determines that they are too old, both in age and provenance, to be the missing child.

Somehow (are we surprised?) he finds himself caught up in the investigation, aiding a likable, capable and intelligent Italian detective to find his way through the secrets and sins of an ancient aristocratic family.

Mr. Elkins never fails to enlighten and entertain. Here he guides us through a different culture that he explores as thoroughly and as thoughtfully as Gideon explores a skeleton. His only failing is that he makes us wait too long between books.

Judith Kreiner is a copy editor at The Washington Times.

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