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IMITATION AS FLATTERY

My favorite supporting character in current crime fiction is a questing, eccentric, 60-ish academic lady called Harriet, in Amanda Cross' new novel featuring New York City feminist/activist Kate Fansler.

Harriet is a secretarial director at male-dominated Schuyler Law School, where Kate and her husband, Reed, are summer-teaching.

A quirky, mysterious figure, Harriet contends she's a self-appointed "spy," that her model is espionage novelist John le Carre's British spymaster George Smiley, that she borrows modestly from the tradecraft of the British Secret Intelligence Service for her occasional clandestine behavior.

(To illustrate how close is Harriet's adoption of the world of le Carre's fiction, the author introduces each chapter with a pertinent excerpt from one of his thrillers. Cross even playfully calls her new Fansler adventure "An Imperfect Spy," a neat twist on "A Perfect Spy," a le Carre title.)

Kate Fansler, assisted by her hubby, takes on, and conquers, the chauvinist bastion of Schuyler Law and, en route, solves a couple of shady incidents in its past.

As a fervent fan of both le Carre and his George Smiley, we'd like to think that the pair of them had a role in Kate's victory, too.
An Imperfect Spy
By Amanda Cross
Ballantine
228 pages, $20.

More thrills, briefly
Free to Trade, by Michael Ridpath; HarperCollins, 346 pages, $23 -- Young British bond trader Ridpath wrote his first chapter as an exercise from a how-to book on writing. Now his big-business thriller is a best seller in England and the States. The story's banker, Paul Murray, works in the City, London's financial heart. He doesn't believe the police version of the drowning death of a colleague. They say it was accident or suicide. But Murray thinks murder. And he proves it, after visits to Manhattan and Arizona sniffing out a big-bucks fraud. The plot's not too original, but its unfamiliar milieu of England's business center makes up for it.

Feline and Famous: "Cat Crimes" Goes Hollywood; Donald I. Fine, 273 pages, $20.95 -- Lovers of cats and mysteries will purr with contentment over the 17 never-before-published stories that make up this newcomer to the "Cat Crimes" series. Each inventive entry gives kitty marquee billing.

Maelstrom, by Sam Llewellyn; Pocket Books, 402 pages, $20 -- From this British author, a saltwater caper involving a shipment of illegal arms, roaring tyranny of an Irish skipper and half-century-old conspiracies. The plot is somewhat complex, but nothing can hide the writer's tremendous talent for headlong storytelling.

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