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Rotters, Holy Dusters and Murderers

Martha Grimes’s novels are a hybrid of mystery forms, all of them hugely entertaining. THE OLD SUCCESS (Atlantic Monthly, $26) is a perfect example. The plot starts off as a classic whodunit involving a local investigation of the mysterious death of Manon Vinet, a beautiful Frenchwoman whose body is found battered on the rocks of Hell Bay on one of the smallest of the Isles of Scilly, just off the Cornish coast.

Meanwhile, at a Northamptonshire estate owned by Lady Eleanor Summerston, there’s been another death, of a man little mourned because he was “a rotter.” But the police insist, as police do, on arresting someone for the murder, so Lady Summerston’s niece, Flora Flood, finds herself in custody. “My husband was shot,” she reasons. “I had a gun. There appeared to be no one else in the room. If that’s true, I shot him.” Sounds like a slam-dunk, but Flora claims innocence.

Then there’s a third murder — inexplicably, of one of the “holy dusters” who clean Exeter Cathedral. Could these cases all be connected? That’s the question troubling Richard Jury, Grimes’s charming Scotland Yard detective, who enlists the aid of his friend Melrose Plant and Melrose’s eccentric pub mates at the Jack and Hammer. Also in on the action is another Jury pal, Tom Brownell, a former C.I.D. operative.

If you’re happy to be sidetracked from all this, there are many wonderful lagniappes to enjoy, including Melrose’s menagerie: a goat named Aghast, a dog named Aggro and a horse named Aggrieved, who gives the lie to his name by running a brilliant if unconventional race.

Grimes has a way with children as well as animals, and here she finds a role for a “stubborn, self-centered, arrogant and demanding” youngster named Gerrard Gerrard. When asked why his mother didn’t give him his own name, he replies: “Too lazy, I expect. We’re a lazy lot.” Lazy he is not, and he proves it by executing a ruse that leaves Melrose’s grasping Aunt Agatha speechless. Gerrard Gerrard is great fun; but if you’re looking for headier thrills, wait until you meet the little girls who found that body on the beach.

Readers who love historical mysteries know that some of the most dramatic stories are set in the interim between the two world wars, when both the victors and the vanquished felt uneasy about their provisional hold on peace. Anne Perry stakes a strong claim to that unstable terrain in DEATH IN FOCUS (Ballantine, $28), the first book in a new series that opens in 1933 as Elena Standish, a resourceful photographer, is caught up in the world of international intrigue. Just before dying in her arms, a British spy exacts a promise that she continue his mission.

Elena takes a bit too easily to her new role. “I’ll come with you to the book burning tonight,” she brightly assures one Berlin contact. More ominously, we learn that even Hitler and Goebbels have heard of her.

Here’s something you really don’t want to hear from your mayor. When a reporter asks, “Is it, or is it not, safe to take an elevator in the City of New York?” his answer is “I don’t know.” That’s just one of many chilling moments in ELEVATOR PITCH (Morrow, $26.99), courtesy of Linwood Barclay, who’s always good for a touch of cardiac arrest.

The novel’s premise is wildly inventive and really scary: Some sadistic person is fiddling with the mechanics of the elevators that operate in the city’s skyscrapers, and everyone is in a state of panic. The first incident is written off as a tragic accident: In the Lansing Tower, on Third Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets, an elevator headed for the 33rd floor shoots past that destination and goes all the way up to the 40th floor, then with a loud noise (“as though the world’s largest rubber band had snapped”) plunges all the way to the ground.

The next day, a residential building on the East Side loses three residents, thanks to another murderous elevator. And, in an act of barbarity that may or may not be relevant, a dead man is discovered on the High Line with the tips of all 10 fingers chopped off.

The two veteran detectives working the case are interesting enough, but the elevator guy is clearly the main attraction.

Is Glasgow really as grim as many crime writers make it seem? In THE QUAKER (Europa, paper, $18), Liam McIlvanney starts with the lousy weather (“a storm battered the city … scattering slates and smacking down chimney stacks”), goes on to city scenes (“they kept knocking bits of it down”) and eventually gets to the inhabitants (“Half the population of Glasgow seemed to be clearing out”).

Then again, a place this dismal is the perfect setting for a plot about a serial murderer people call “The Quaker.” This creep selects his victims from single women who patronize the city’s dance halls, so that’s where the cops assigned to the case hang out. But it’s far too easy to spot them: “They were the ones watching the men, not the women.”

McIlvanney composes beautiful prose about ugly things, but there’s another attribute that makes him special: He writes excellent curses, presumably plucked from these dark, cold streets.

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