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PERHAPS THE BEST MCCONE YET

LIKE FOG seeping from the bay into the San Francisco cityscapes of Marcia Muller's whodunits, the rage, fear and paranoia of America's cataclysmic '60s pervade the case the author entrusts to private investigator Sharon McCone in "Trophies and Dead Things."

It's the 11th, and perhaps best, McCone story from this able California writer, hailed by Sue Grafton, another of the genre's outstanding practitioners, as "the founding 'mother' of the contemporary female hard-boiled private eye."

In "Trophies," McCone -- who was created in 1977's "Edwin of the Iron Shoes" and works for the All Souls Legal Cooperative -- looks into the sniper murder of an old friend of the co-op. Tracing the victim's beneficiaries, she comes upon a conspiracy that goes back 25 years, to the era of the Vietnam anti-war protests, campus radicalism at Berkeley and the tumultuous Free Speech Movement.

Muller has crafted an ambitious, fascinating plot. Despite the frequent mental time shuttles it demands of the reader, and an unusually large cast with complex interrelationships, Muller keeps the narrative firmly in hand. The result: A perceptive novel about the way it was in chaotic America 25 years ago, as well as a disturbing mystery.

Trophies and Dead Things, by Marcia Muller. Mysterious Press, 266 pages, $16.95

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