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British Mysteries

Arson & Old Lace, Patricia Harwin, Pocket, $5.99.

Some of the best deals in mystery come in the form of paperback originals, and Patricia Harwin's debut, Arson & Old Lace, is no exception. This book is strongly reminiscent of Jeanne Dam's Dorothy Martin series in its set up - a recently unattached American woman moves to England - but there the resemblance ends. Harwin's main character, Catherine Penny, is not a widow, like Dams' Dorothy Martin, but a recent divorcee who has a grown daughter living in England with her newly arrived grandson, Archie. This arrangement gave the series lots of emotional oomph and I was completely taken by the 60 something Catherine, who is sometimes strong, sometimes unsure of herself, frequently misses her husband, and has robust disagreements with her daughter, who resembles her father in personality more than her mother. Catherine has even agreed to watch Archie several days a week, forgetting what a handful a toddler can be. With this kind of set up, the mystery is almost a bonus, but the mystery is a good one too. The story begins with a bang when Catherine goes over to meet her nearest neighbor, George Crocker, an old man in a ramshackle cottage who lives alone with his cat and seems to be shunned by the entire village. Catherine takes him under her wing - cooks him dinner and checks up on him - and then one day she comes home and finds his cottage on fire. Unable to save him, she feels drawn into the story of his death, which she strongly suspects is a murder, not an accident.

Catherine takes a path which - and this is my only quibble with the book - may seem to some readers somewhat morally reprehensible: she jumps to a conclusion and makes an accusation that has disastrous effects. I could almost hear Ann Landers telling her to "wake up and smell the coffee", but on the other hand, it became a pivotal plot point, and Catherine's "victim" is such an unpleasant person you can't feel too badly about it. Catherine Penny gave me a lot to think about, and I enjoyed meeting her. Harwin's easy storytelling style is also a pleasure, and I enjoyed the red herrings and bits of English folklore she manages to lace throughout the novel. This is the kind of novel that should proliferate - an enjoyable, quick read with a memorable protagonist. (Robin)

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