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Mysteries for Holiday Sleuths

Armchair detectives will dig deep to unravel these plots from some favorite authors

When "Mallory's Oracle" by Carol O'Connell was published last year, it won (and deserved) universal acclaim and an Edgar nomination for best mystery writing. Its protagonist is a New York policewoman, Kathleen Mallory, with a heck of a hook: She was a homeless street child until adolescence, when a police officer and his wife took her in. Mallory followed that man, Louis Markowitz, into police work.

But someone has just murdered Markowitz, and Mallory uses all her street instincts to find the killer. "Mallory's Oracle" unfolds like a deadly flower, with details of her past revealed slowly, almost reluctantly.

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Knowing that background in "Mallory's Oracle" makes its sequel, The Man Who Cast Two Shadows (Putnam, 278 pp., $23.95), all the more interesting. So although it's not necessary, try to read "Oracle" first. In "Shadows," Mallory returns (bringing along some vividly drawn supporting characters with her from "Oracle"), this time to solve the murder of a young woman who is found murdered - wearing a jacket with the label "Kathleen Mallory" inside. The uniqueness of Mallory's character alone might have carried the series for a while, but it's reassuring to see that O'Connell has the talent and maturity to back up her character.

For me, instant attraction and lifelong devotion to Raymond Chandler took just one sentence: "On the smooth brown hair was a hat that had been taken from its mother too young." I still can't read that sentence (from "The Little Sister") without smiling and thinking the world is just a better place with someone in it who can think and write that.

And happily enough, the Library of America people must think so too, because they've just come out with Raymond Chandler: Two Volumes: Stories and Early Novels; and Later Novels and Other Writings ($35 each) to add to their impressive and important series of American writers.

The volumes show Chandler's development from pulp magazine writer (with such titles as "Smart Aleck Kill" and "Trouble Is My Business") to one of the keenest, funniest, and most caustic chroniclers of America ("The Big Sleep," "Double Indemnity"). Along the way he turned crime writing into a respectable art.

Dick Francis fans have an extra reason to cheer the arrival of his annual novel, Come to Grief (Putnam, 308pp, $23.95): He's brought back one of his most popular characters, Sid Halley, the jockey-turned-investigator who lost his hand in an accident ("Whip Hand").

Halley, stiffer-upper-lipped than all of Francis's other heroes, finds himself the target of both physical and emotional abuse when he sets out to prove who is maiming horses.

Along with Sid, we know right away who is guilty. The apparent criminal is both a beloved racing star and Sid's personal friend. The story unfolds with great tension and emotion as Sid struggles to prove what he himself doesn't want to believe - and what an adoring public hates Sid for even suggesting.

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Francis has always been very good, so good he's made it seem easy; but he's turned the heat up an extra notch with this one, to his credit and our enjoyment.

The good news in Ruth Rendell's new novel, Simisola (Crown, 327 pp., $23), is that Inspector Wexford is back. The not-so-good news is that he's deep in a novel so politically correct and self-consciously aware of its own righteous indignation that one feels guilty even complaining about it.

"Simisola" is about discrimination: discrimination against minorities, women, the elderly, the poor ... and, oh yes, it's a murder mystery too, centering around the disappearance of a young black woman and the discovery of a body of a young black woman.

Everything hits close to home for Wexford. The missing woman is his doctor's daughter; meanwhile at home, his own daughter's husband has lost his job.

Everything Rendell has to say about discrimination, about the changing face of communities large and small, is absolutely true, and her ability to capture and skewer characters is as sharp as ever - so sharp, in fact, that spelling it out isn't always necessary. The preachy tone spoils what could otherwise have been Rendell's usual excellent work.

Like P.D. James, Kate Charles knows the advantage of putting a group of people together in a closed setting and watching them mingle and murder. Charles has chosen the Anglican church for her territory, and in A Dead Man Out of Mind (Mysterious Press, 339,pp. $19.95), her fourth "Book of Psalms" mystery, her characters are what might happen if Barbara Pym's "excellent women" got together in the study after the vicar went out.

St. Margaret's is a very conservative parish in London, and it's bad when their curate is murdered during a robbery. But even murder isn't as bad to some as the fact that their new curate turns out to be a woman.

Returning sleuths Lucy Kingsley and her boyfriend, David Middleton-Brown, naturally get involved, while entertaining their own thoughts of murder when Lucy's teenage niece comes for an extended stay. Charles (an American living in England, by the way) does a clever job of juggling plot and character with church politics and posturing.

And even if the ending leaves a few too many characters' fates unresolved (these people have gotten under our skin - we deserve to know), one supposes that that augers well for the arrival of another "Book of Psalms."

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