- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

Perhaps only a Texan could come up with a book about murder in a small Lone Star State town and manage to make it look as though the sheriff was as worried about the possibility that he would have to adopt the victim’s cat as he was about the demise of its owner.

Nevertheless, in Murder Among the Owls (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 256 pages) Bill Crider writes in a drawl, laid-back and laconic. He takes his readers on a leisurely stroll into Clearview, which would appear to be the unlikely scene of the crime, and introduces them to his bickering deputies and the neighbors. As he investigates the murder of a local lady, he makes it clear her cat has a role in the mystery.

It’s not that he likes the cat. It makes him sneeze, and as he interviews witnesses, he invariably asks them whether they would like to adopt it. It’s the kind of plot where Sheriff Dan Rhodes can get half buried in mud and “beaten half to death” by a woman wielding a butterfly imprinted purse and make the reader smile. It’s also the kind of mystery where the real killer turns out to be a surprise at the end of a row of red herrings. It’s fun.

Many mystery writers have borrowed from Agatha Christie, the mother of village murders, but in The Body in the Ivy (Morrow, $29.95, 256 pages), Katherine Hall Page took a risk by modeling this book on Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” which was probably one of the darker and more sinister of her plots. It leaned heavily on death to prime its plot, with character after character killed off, building to a kicker of a climax.

The suspense in this book is heavily diluted. Faith Fairchild is a sort of sleuth and more of a caterer who finds herself involved in a weird weeklong reunion of eight female college classmates on a private island owned by a wealthy novelist.

The book is weighed down by flashbacks of less than riveting characters and by Faith Fairchild’s chronicling of her recipes to accompany mayhem. The murders become secondary to who’s serving what, when and to whom. The plot is predictable and so is the psychology of the group.

If you can’t have fun with a cast of Irish characters, what’s wrong with you? In Rhys Brown’s In Dublin’s Fair City (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 288 pages), Molly Murphy, private investigator in New York in an era when women couldn’t even vote, leaps at the chance to return to her native Ireland to track down the sister of a wealthy Irish American and finds herself in the middle of a morass — or should it be a bog? — involving impersonation, murder and the centuries-old Irish battle against English domination. Molly is an indomitable creature, striving to set her own agenda of life against the temptation of settling down to life as the wife of a temperamental Irishman in New York.

The book bounces along in the hands of Ms. Bowen and her Molly and there is no doubt that she will be back causing trouble as only an Irish immigrant can.

In Nancy Martin’s, A Crazy Little Thing Called Death (New American Library, $21.95, 288 pages) the Blackbird sisters of Philadelphia are socialites run amok, led by Nora, an impoverished heiress who has become romantically involved with the Mafia in the form of Mick Abruzzo. There is a cheerful madness to the plot but that’s about all.

Rambunctious sex is interspersed with bizarre plot turns as the story of Nora unwinds and unwinds along a trail of crime and passion, shadowed by the specter of the alleged Blackbird curse on those who dally with the sensational sisters. It’s the kind of book you can easily read on a short flight on a plane, and forget equally quickly.

There may be no location left in Washington on which Margaret Truman has not left her imprint in terms of fictional crime. In almost two dozen books she has written of murder in locations including the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, Ford’s Theater, Union Station,the Library of Congress, the Pentagon, the National Gallery, the FBI, Capitol Hill, the Kennedy Center, the Watergate and the Smithsonian.

In Murder At the Opera (Ballantine, $24.95, 336 pages), her crime fighters are a Washington-knowledgeable couple, Mac Smith and his wife, Annabel Reed-Smith, and this time around they are probing the death of a young soprano stabbed backstage at the Washington National Opera.

Ms. Truman makes her plot timely by extending it to the current world of terrorism. She also sharpens it with the inclusion of the president of the United States at a critical theatrical moment, and nobody can question the author’s credentials in terms of presidential insight, even it they do date back more than half a century.

For Truman enthusiasts, the book is a leisurely read, but the writing is drab, it lacks any real suspense, and she relies on the existence of a fan base which may well read anything she writes.

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

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