23 DECEMBER 1972, Page 19

Quick and the dead

John Welcome

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman P. D. James (Faber £1.90).

The Caterpillar Cop James McClure (Gollancz £1.80).

Smokescreen Dick Francis (Michael Joseph £1.95).

Elephants Can Remember Agatha Christie (Collins £1.60).

Seduction Of A Tall Man Reg Gadney (Heinemann £2.10).

Devil Daddy John Blackburn (Cape £1.60).

Miss P. D. James is the leading presentday practitioner of the feminine character novel that is also a detective story. By and large she is, indeed, the only member of her clan who has substantial claims to rank alongside Sayers and Allingham. She writes and plots, usually, with a gem-like clarity that compels both attention and admiration. Unfortunately in this book the gem is flawed. Private detection is indeed no job for the dear little thing who is employed to uncover the motives behind the apparent suicide of a likeable dropout. The atmosphere of suspicion and brooding violence surrounding a Cambr,idge clique of trendy youths is excellently conveyed, the background and switching scenes are handled with the same impeccable skill as ever. One is about to hail a minor masterpiece of the genre when, suddenly, the whole carefully constructed edifice collapses into an unlikely solution and an unsatisfactory aftermath. It looks, for once, like too-hasty plotting and one has, too, the horrible suspicion that Miss James is about to commit the cardinal sin of falling in love with her great detective. Let her beware and, take thought of Miss Sayers who did just that and neither she nor Wimsey were ever the same afterwards.

James McClure's first novel, The Steam Pig, attracted rather more attention than it was worth. Doubts about his second arise almost immediately with the description in the first few pages of a sexual encounter between teenagers. This is either ex

tremely naive, unconsciously funny, or both. Lieutenant Kramer of the Trekkersburg Police and his black Watson Sergeant Zondi lumber through the investigation of what is, apparently, the sexual murder and mutilation of a young boy. Some of the detection is very well done and the crudities allied to the casual acceptance of violence no doubt mirror the South African society in which it is set. But the characters, especially the murderer whose unmasking is melodramatic in the extreme, are mostly caricatures and, by overcomplicating his plot, Mr McClure has become the prisoner of his own ingenuity.

A taut and compulsive story-like has always been the hallmark of Dick Francis's thrillers. His new one, oddly enough also set in South Africa, is no exception. Mostly his heroes are hard up, hard done by and run into dead trouble. This time, however, Edward Lincoln is a rich and successful film star who is asked by a dying friend to find out why her stable of horses in South Africa are failing to run up to their form. He hits trouble all right in the shape of near electrocution, mugging in a coal mine, plus a highly ingenious staking-out in tl, scrub and under the all-consuming sun Perhaps, for once, it does seem a shade more perfunctory than usual. The excellent idea for the action star being forced by events to act our in reality the phantasies he plays on the screen is not really adequately developed or thought through. But even with these reservations it remains as distinguished a thriller as we are likely to see this side of Christmas.

The new Christie For Christmas is slighter, perhaps than we are accustomed to, but it is also lighter, wittier and carries a defter touch than some of the more recent models to come off the line. Mrs Ariadne Oliver, writer of civilised detective novels, is button-holed at a literary luncheon by an over-powering woman who poses a question pregnant with implications. Did the mother of Mrs Oliver's goddaughter kill her husband before killing herself or was it the other way round? Having nothing better to do, Mrs Oliver resolves to find out and enlists her friend, none other than M. Hercule Poirot, to help her. The Elephants of the title are old memories of sad, forgotten, far-off things. It might have been that they were better left undisturbed but Mrs Oliver and M. Poirot don't think so. With the help of a considerable amount of intuition they solve the whole affair and, as it turns out, it is as well that they do so. Backwardlooking and a little fey, this is a romantic wisp of a story in which identical twins have a part to play, which will indicate, perhaps, the partly period setting. There are weaknesses of plot but it is all told with such verve and gaiety that it adds up to a highly enjoyable read.

Mr Gadney's Seduction Of a Tall Man has its faults. It takes some time to get going, its elliptical manner interferes with the story-line and it overplays violence. Compensation for these is the thriceblessed gift of originality. Tom Wild, a layabout, sets up a shoddy sort of Lonely Hearts business and bends it considerably for his own profit. From there it is only a step to blackmail and he takes it. Unfortunately for him he selects the wrong victim. The supposed soft touch is not one at all. He is a degenerate tough with CIA and, underworld contacts. He hits back with everything he has got and that is plenty. The reversal of roles thus produced is very well done. Wild becomes enmeshed in his own net and endeavours with even more outlandish efforts to avoid the violence his intended victim throws back at him. It all gets rather out of hand and becomes implausible at the end, but Mr Gadney is a man to watch.

Finally, Devil Daddy — a flesh-creeper. Mr Blackburn has few superiors in this genre when he is at the top of his form but, here, alas, he is not. Black magic, satanism, bacteriology, murder, rape and re-creation, you name them, they're all there. Which is just the trouble, for Mr Blackburn has put too much into 191 pages. He is as readable as ever and as clever, but for once the characters do not convince and the whole book so cluttered that it just fails to elicit the required gasp of horror.

John Welcome lives in the republic of Ireland and writes crime fiction.