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In the parlor ... with a giggle

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LAST DITCH By G.M. Ford Avon Books 280 pp., $22

MURDER IN HAWAII By Steve Allen Kensington Books 316 pp., $22

Put the latest crop of comic mystery heroes in a room together, and someone will surely get knocked flat. Not by a candlestick, mind you, but by the snappy one-liners zinging around like a manic rubber ball.

A more affable - or candid - group of protagonists can't be found. And they're refreshingly real. There's not a building- leaping, window-crashing, gadget-wielding superman in the bunch. These three picks from the comic mystery genre have more bumble than bite, but most of all they're just eye-crinkling, smile-tugging fun.

G.M. Ford bursts off the blocks with Last Ditch, the fifth in his Leo Waterman series. The saucy private eye prowls the city of Seattle armed with little more than his wit and irrepressible nosiness.

"Last Ditch" dumps Leo into a tangle of intrigue that lay hibernating for three decades. And when the gumshoe takes a jab at the sleeping beast, it turns nasty.

The whole puzzle spills out abruptly when Leo - doing a little yard work at his childhood home - unearths the bones of Peerless Price, a whistle-blowing columnist whose vigilante-style squawking ended with his mysterious disappearance.

It might have been just a case of some old bones, but each thread leads back to Leo's late father - a prominent city official - who had several reasons to permanently stopper the inflammatory Price.

Leo gets reeled into a crusade to exonerate his unscrupulous dad. In the process, he uncovers a long-buried minefield of shady dealings - municipal corruption, infidelity, immigrant smuggling, a host of coverups, and a gay bar in an era that didn't list them in the phone book.

Ford steers these plot lines expertly. Before you know it, he sends you scrambling through the finish line disheveled, out of breath, and grinning.

The second book comes from the pen of modern-day renaissance man Steve Allen. The author, composer, actor, and comedian casts himself and his real-life wife, actress Jayne Meadows, as amateur detectives in Murder in Hawaii.

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