Plum centre on the target


JANET EVANOVICH has already carved a nice little niche for herself in the funny thriller field on the strength of only couple of offerings featuring her off the wall heroine, Stephanie Plum. And she's up to par again with her third novel, Three to Get Deadly (Hamish Hamilton, £13.99 in UK), in which bounty hunter Stephanie is on the trail of Uncle Mo, a well loved candy store owner who has been caught with an unauthorised firearm and is on the lam.

Her pursuit of Uncle Mo has made our Steph the most unpopular woman in her neighbourhood of Trenton, New Jersey, with friends, family and even her love hate boyfriend, Detective Morelli, giving her the cold shoulder. However, aided and hindered in about equal measure by horizontally challenged Lula, proud, loud and sassy, she continues her scatter brained chase, unearthing bodies at every pitstop, consuming the most inappropriate foods and mixing with an eccentric a bunch of characters who might have stepped out of Mad magazine.

The pace never flags, the humour is grandly surreal, and the dialogue fairly sizzles off the page. Invidious to quote, perhaps, but the following gives just a tiny flavour of the overall confection:

"`When a man's got a nose looks like a penis he's likely to do anything,' Lula said. `It's the sort of thing makes serial killers out of otherwise normal people.'"

Daniel Pennac's The Fairy Godmother (Harvill Press, £15.99 in UK) is another comedy thriller, this time translated from the original French by Ian Monk - giving rise to stilted English such as "With pinched grief picking out his black moustache". The trouble here is that Pennac tries too hard, most of the time beating his quite imaginative flights of fancy to death with verbosity. His hero is Benjamin Malaussene, a down trodden publishing house employee, who lives with his fecund mother and multitude of siblings in Paris's chaotic Belleville quarter. Bernard is one of life's perennial victims and, in the rum goings on in which he becomes involved - one granny shooting to death a policeman and half a dozen other grannies being slaughtered by having their throats cut - he becomes the chief suspect and prime mark for the dotty pair of cops Van Thian and Pastor. Reading The Fairy Godmother is like being on a roller coaster: exhilarating but highly dizzy making.

John Lescroart's Guilt (Headline, £16.99 in UK) is another odd affair. Its hero villain is eminently respectable Mark Dooher, head of a San Francisco law firm, prominent citizen, respected family man and counsel to the city's Catholic archdiocese. When a case brings him in contact with young lawyer Christina Carrera, he falls in love with her and determines to make her his new wife. One would think he would then insist on a divorce from Sheila, his spouse of twenty years, but instead he sets off on a murderous binge that cuts a swathe through his own life and through the lives of all the people close to him.

It is obvious that author Lescroart intended his novel to be a salutary lesson on the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but the whole thing becomes preposterous because of the yuppy milieu and the rather desultory character drawing. There is also the fact that not one of the large cast elicits our sympathy, from the grasping wife to the plodding detective to the surfacy femme fatale. Guilt may be slick and entertaining, but the basic premise of the corrupt rottenness of corporate society leaves a bad taste.

On a parallel theme, Philippa Gregory in The Little House (HarperCollins, £16.99 in UK) delves beneath the outwardly placid seeming surface of a middle class marriage to find stressful desperation like a silent scream beneath. Ruth is married to Patrick. Once a career woman - in local broadcasting - she gave it all up to be a wife and mother. Or did she? Was it a case that she was fooled into such a course by her in laws from hell Patrick's mother and father? Fastidious and competent Elizabeth is everything that her daughter in law is not; bibulously sinister Frederick threatens to have Ruth committed to an asylum if she doesn't measure up; while husband Patrick compliantly looks on. Scenario for foul and dark deeds? Most assuredly. In the inevitable climax, poor abused Ruth strikes out for her freedom, and hell then hath no fury. A nicely plotted, lowkey effort, but one that stays in the mind.

And yet another oddity: a crime novel with no less a detective than Jane Austen as its heroine. This kind of thing can either work or be an excruciating failure. In the case of Stephanie Barron, with her Jane and the Man of the Cloth (Headline, £16.99 in UK), the result is a resounding success. I found the book delightful, with its pastiche Austen style, its old fashioned air and its lack of overt sex and violence. The plot is highly melodramatic, as befits the author's intentions, the characters are larger than life, and the whole book is redolent of a time when life ran in the stow lane and people stood to stand and stare.

Stuart Pawson's Detective Inspector Charlie Priest, in Last Reminder (Headline, £16.99 in UK), also takes life easy and slow. Although he works in the bustling town of Heckley, his real interests lie in the wild East Pennine landscape and the many opportunities it offers for peace and relaxation. However, a policeman's lot is hard, and before he can take him self off into the countryside in the company of the delectable widow. Annabelle Wilberforce, Charlie has to find out who murdered the crooked financier Hartley Goodrich, open up an inquiry that has been closed down for years, get rid of some local drug dealers, and generally kick ass. Slow, humorous and nicely plotted, Last Reminder is ideal summer reading.

Finally, for those not already suffering from a surfeit of politics and elections, a big book about - well, politics and elections. In Heaven's Light (Macmillan, £16.99 in UK), Graham Hurley has a twosome of MPs, Charlie Epple and Hayden Barnaby, form a new political party and then attempt to have their home town of Portsmouth secede from the mainstream of British society. Of course there's a mysterious billionaire hovering in the background, his wealth funding the seaside city's bid for independence. What are his motives? How will the ruling government react? Today Portsmouth, tomorrow...? Good fun, this, with an interesting premise, but I don't think it'll cause our own ruling parties to shake in their boots.