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Butler didn't "do it' here

Grave Music, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Charles Scribner's Sons, $20.

Perhaps the toughest part of writing a murder mystery is working out how it was done and then devising a character with the motive and opportunity to do it. (Recall that in Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie had all her suspects in at the kill.) In the London-based Grave Music, author Harrod-Eagles concocts such a convoluted manner of murder, it's the one sour note in an otherwise delectable whodunit. The victim is easy-to-despise symphony conductor Sir Stefan Radek, who is shot in front of his 86-member orchestra during a rehearsal. One of the violinists is Joanna, the ex-lady-love of Harrod-Eagles' detective hero, Inspector Bill Slider. Joanna walked out on Bill when his wife left him. She was angry he didn't leave her first. The wealthy Sir Stefan's sexual excesses were balanced by his emotional and monetary miserliness. Everyone in his immediate circle of family and friends had a reason to want him dead. Except his grieving longtime butler, "Buster" Keaton. As Slider investigates the murder, he discovers that Radek's apparently successful daughter and son-in-law are merely playing "happy family" and that Radek's past sins would have merited him a balcony seat in Dante's Inferno. It's a cleverly plotted, immensely readable romp, but the "how" of the murder is too clever by half.

If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him, by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, $20.

Remember the Betty Broderick case? She was the California housewife who, after being mauled in the divorce court by her lawyer-husband and his cronies, shot him and his newer-model bride to death, and then wisecracked her way into a life sentence. Sharyn McCrumb most surely does because she created a similar character in this offbeat mystery set in Virginia and embroidered it with feminist politics. Her veteran heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson, a forensic anthropologist, once again is helping her brother and his partner, the petite but feisty A.

P. Hill, work on two cases where women have been accused of murdering their husbands. One _ the bright and brittle Betty Broderick wanna-be _ and the other, a simple country wife whose Bible-thumping husband decreed that God really did want him to take on a perky teenager named Tanya Faith as his second wife. Working against Elizabeth is the fact that one of her ancestors was accused of murdering her husband. In researching the present cases, Elizabeth also solves the mystery that occurred more than 100 years before. McCrumb is a fine writer with an eye and ear finely attuned to the ever-frazzling relationships between the sexes.

Don't Cry Now, by Joy Fielding, Morrow, $23.

Joy Davidson has tapped into every happily married woman's worst nightmare. That is: Her sexy, adoring and adorable husband is trying to kill her. After all, his ex-wife has been murdered and it appears that she's been set up as the prime suspect. Boston-based Bonnie, a teacher married to TV talk-show producer Rob and mother of the darling 3-year-old Amanda, pretty much thought she had it all until Rob's ex, Joan, phones to warn Bonnie that she and Amanda are in danger and they must meet to discuss it. Taking Joan's drinking problem into consideration, Bonnie still arrives for the appointment only to find Joan's been shot _ and when the police arrive, it's Bonnie with blood on her hands. Being a murder suspect is the least of her problems. She has to take on Rob's two perverse teenagers along with their pet boa constrictor; she suspects Rob is having an affair with the flamboyant talk-show star; she's forced into a reunion with her ex-con brother whose name mysteriously appeared in Joan's phone book; the day-care center calls to tell her a stranger has dumped a bucket of blood on Amanda's head, and she's suffering from a debilitating illness any Agatha Christie primer would diagnose as arsenic poisoning.

Fielding's plots smack of the Mary Higgins Clark formula for domestic suspense, but she brings more shrewdness and psychological depth to the traditional "all-in-the-family" woman's mystery. While it's a given Bonnie will make it through to the last page, Fielding is able to keep the reader guessing and interested in who it is who doesn't want her there.

Kiki Olson's mysteries column appears monthly.

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