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Weekly Alibi Murder, They Wrote

By Blake de Pastino

JUNE 29, 1998:  Some critics will tell you that mystery novels are all the same--to which we say, so what? That's what we like about them. They all have their heroes and their villains, their torrid plots and their gruesome (but comfortably abstract) acts of violence. And besides, each mystery novel does have its own unique twist--that little quirk in the corner of the story that makes it memorable and exciting. Hitchcock called it the "Maguffin," the gimmick that no mystery should be without.

Here are just four new books by New Mexico authors that fit the M.O. of the mystery novel. But as you can see, no two are exactly alike. To help you prepare your summer reading list, we've taken the liberty of summarizing their plotlines, revealing their Maguffins and even giving you a little gossip that we've beaten out of our sources in the mystery-publishing industry. Consider this your rap sheet for the season's reading. Now get out there among those gumshoes and gun molls, and get those bad guys. I want a report from you on my desk in the morning.

Prolonged Exposure
(St. Martins, cloth, $21.95)

Author: Lincoln County, N.M., recluse Steven Havill
Gumshoe: Bill Gastner, undersheriff of fictional Posadas County, N.M.
Reductive Description: Whodunit, Western-style

Thumbnail Sketch: In this sixth mystery with Gastner at the helm, our hero is recovering from surgery in Michigan when he gets word that sleepy Posadas County has been hit with a rash of strange, vague and seemingly unrelated crimes: several burglaries, an apparent kidnapping and what may or may not be a murder. He heads back home to set things right.

Maguffin: One of the clues turns out to be a corpse buried in Gastner's own back yard. Oop.

Gossip: Havill is an experienced writer of Western novels as well as mysteries. Expect to find lots of Havill's characteristically unfancy prose and raw atmosphere.

Signature Murder
(Bantam, paper, $5.50)

Author: Albuquerque lawyer Patricia Frieder
Gumshoe: Santa Fe ex-lawyer Matty Donahue
Reductive Description: Chick mystery

Thumbnail Sketch: A case gone bad has gotten Matty practically disbarred, and now she's working as a drone in another lawyer's office. But just when she starts to get her poop in a group, a client, the elderly and churlish Isadora Stanton, is brutally killed. The prime suspect quickly surfaces in the person of Isadora's chauffeur, Teddy Bellasandro. Matty gets to work to set things right.

Maguffin: Teddy Bellasandro is also a friend of Matty's, and she was the one who recommended him for the chauffeur's job in the first place. Oop.

Gossip: This is Frieder's first book ever, a manuscript that initially came to light when it won the prize for Mystery Fiction from the Southwest Writer's Workshop. It then blossomed into this straight-to-paperback release from Bantam's Crime Line imprint, the first of a two-book contract. Expect something in the tradition of Sue Grafton (you know, N is for Noose and all that) but with some marketable Santa Fe style.

Serpent Gate
(Scribner, cloth, $23)

Author: Retired Santa Fe cop Michael McGarrity
Gumshoe: Retired Santa Fe cop Kevin Kerney
Reductive Description: Semi-hard-boiled cop fiction

Thumbnail Sketch: Kerney is hired to investigate the murder of a patrolman in the nonfictional and none-too-picturesque town of Mountainair, N.M. His only lead is a mental hospital escapee who keeps talking about a rape at a place called Serpent Gate. Cut to upscale Santa Fe, where there are still more seemingly unrelated crimes going on--namely, the theft of $8 million worth of art and artifacts from the governor's office and the death of a young woman in a millionaire's mansion. Kerney gets to work to set things right.

Maguffin: The identity of the guilty party (or parties) becomes clear pretty early on. Subplots then converge to reveal the real mystery.

Gossip: This is McGarrity's first novel published by Scribner. His first two big-selling titles--Tularosa and Mexican Hat--were produced by Norton, and the switch has created a good deal of rumor along the booksellers' grapevine. Changing publishers can have a mighty big effect on books by relatively new writers. Expect a mystery that will try its hardest to look, sound and feel like the first two.

Small Towns Can Be Murder
(Intrigue Press, cloth, $22.95)

Author: Angel Fire, N.M., publisher Connie Shelton
Gumshoe: Albuquerque CPA and amateur detective Charlotte "Charlie" Parker
Reductive Description: Nancy Drew with moxie

Thumbnail Sketch: In her fourth escapade, Charlie Parker visits the town of Valle Escondido for Independence Day weekend, where she learns that a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend has just died, apparently from a miscarriage. But our heroine suspects foul play at the hands of the victim's husband. Charlie gets to work to set things right.

Maguffin: Charlie actually believes in things. Even though she gets caught up in some pretty frilly side-stories--like an affair with a dashing helicopter pilot named Drake--Charlie proves that she's nobody's fool, and her case quickly inflates into a moral crusade concerning spousal abuse, medical ethics and gun control.

Gossip: Intrigue Press is Connie Shelton's own publishing company, but it's not one of those vanity presses. The small Angel Fire, N.M., house specializes in mystery, suspense and adventure stories by women and about women's issues. Expect an unusual mixture of romance-novel fantasy and full-bore politics.

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