Books

Storytellers go for a few yuks, a few groans

For your consideration today, the publishing equivalent of old vaudevillians' storied description of their work: "Do a little song, do a little dance, shoot a little seltzer down your pants."

None of these books will win a Nobel or a Pulitzer. But in their offbeat ways, they push the boundaries of storytelling, proving that almost anything can be the source of an engaging tale.

Take, for example, "The Sudoku Puzzle Murders" (Thomas Dunne, $23.95, 304 pages), by Parnell Hall, the ninth in his "Puzzle Lady" series. Cora Felton is actually only the grandmotherly newspaper logo face -- à la Betty Crocker -- for nationally syndicated "Puzzle Lady" crosswords created by her niece Sherry in their small Connecticut town. In truth, Cora couldn't finish the clue "The Star Spangled _ _ _ _ _ _."

But she discovers she has a talent for Sudoku. Indeed, she is so adept at devising and solving the nine-number brainteasers, two violently competitive Japanese publishers show up and approach her about compiling a book of the puzzles.

Before Cora has a chance to fathom her new success, seemingly random murder victims start piling up. Their corpses are littered with unsolved newspaper puzzles that Cora begins to see she must solve to help the police catch the killers. (The puzzles, provided by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, are an appealing bonus.)

Another little whodunit off the beaten track is Andrew Martin's "The Lost Luggage Porter" (Harcourt, $14, 309 pages), the latest featuring Late Victorian English railway enthusiast Jim Stringer. It is 1906 and Stringer has been named Railway Detective for York Station. His first assignment comes after the station's Lost Luggage Porter warns him of an impending train robbery, and Jim goes undercover to infiltrate the gang. Martin engineers his plot with just the right blend of historical exposition and timeless suspense. All aboard!

Anyone like me who can barely change a light bulb will want to nail down "The Book of Old Houses" (Putnam, $22, 294 pages), the latest in Sarah Graves' "Home Repair Is Homicide" series. Previous titles have included such groaners as "Mallets Aforethought" and "Tool & Die," so I thought I was in for a cutesy "Mr. Blandings Meets Miss Marple" deal with this one.

But Jacobia "Jake" Tiptree, who fled a high-paying Manhattan job for the joys of restoring a 200-year-old home in Maine, is a smart, sassy, sensible companion. The story begins when a mysterious old book (with her name inscribed in it in blood) is found buried in the foundation of her 1823 fixer-upper and she sends it to a local antiquarian book expert for an evaluation. Author Graves turns the screws tighter as the book disappears and the book guy turns up dead. The mayhem that ensues may make any renovation project you've endured seem a simple hammer to the thumb.

Meanwhile, Israel Armstrong, the theatrically cranky hero of Ian Sansom's hilarious "Mobile Library" series, returns in "The Book Stops Here" (Harper, 336 pages, $13.95). Israel, who has been miserable driving a bookmobile in Northern Ireland, brightens when he gets a chance to return to his London hometown for convention of a mobile librarians. To his astonishment, someone steals his rusty old van. So he and buddy Ted set out to track it down. The trail eventually leads them to a druid-like group of Solstice-worshipping hippies for whom a van like this is veritable catnip.

The real fun in this series (try "The Case of the Missing Books") is listening to Israel rant about everything from the atrocities of Northern Irish weather to the philistinism of his clients. Example: "Israel had imagined a librarian in a small town as a kind of cultural ambassador, like a country priest guiding his grateful parishioners into the holy realms of the book. In fact, most library users ... seemed to regard a librarian as nothing more than a glorified shop assistant."

You'll want to go undercover, in more ways than one, with the happy reissue of "The Spy's Bedside Book" (Bantam, $12, 248 pages), first compiled in 1957 by the legendary master of espionage fiction (among other things) Graham Greene, and his brother Hugh.

This compendium of memoir, fiction, aphorism and historical accounts of espionage through the centuries is the literary equivalent of a triple agent at a dead drop: You never know what you'll get, but it's always intriguing.

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