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MYSTERIES

Slightly Abridged by Ellen Pall (St. Martin's, $23.95). A writer of first-rate froth, Manhattan's Juliet Bodine likes to think of her immensely popular Regency romances as literary anesthesia for miserable women.

Unfortunately, in this book she's joined their ranks. Despite two hunky men in her life -- which is played out in an Upper West Side duplex with a river view -- Juliet can't write her next book and she's depressed.

Then a feisty elderly fan from rural New York shows up for tea, bearing a possibly valuable 19th-century manuscript. Both the fan and the manuscript disappear, and Juliet is soon involved in a murder investigation, aided by a cop she has the hots for, and her novelist's instincts and insights.

The plot in "Slightly Abridged" doesn't quite live up to the vivid characterizations, but author Ellen Pall tells a wry story of the writing life.

Safe in Heaven Dead by Samuel Ligon (HarperCollins, $23.95).

Two disasters turn Robert Elgin into a criminal in Samuel Ligon's flawed but fascinating "Safe in Heaven Dead."

His young daughter is molested by a neighbor kid and the resulting trauma divides him and his wife, as well as making the contract negotiator feel that their lives have been invaded by what he calls "abuse professionals."

Then a promotion demanding ethical shortcuts traps him in profound financial corruption. Elgin becomes an embezzler, fleeing Michigan for a luxury hotel in New York and the company of a call girl. She's a doctoral student in English who quotes Faulkner, but her narrative is not very convincing.

In what seems like a gimmick, the book starts with Elgin's death and works fitfully backward. Still, Ligon's a keen analyst of marital discord and he writes beautifully, even when this book feels like a clever short story expanded with an eye to Hollywood.

The Middle of Nowhere by Bob Sloan (Atlantic Monthly, $23).

In Bob Sloan's 1999 "Bliss Jumps the Gun," crabby detective Lenny Bliss' life was anything but blissful, especially since his wife's comedy act was mainly about him and his job.

Things are far worse in "The Middle of Nowhere": Rachel, his wife, is writing a crime novel and not just picking his brains but following him to take notes.

The book's strength is the low-level conflict between Bliss and Rachel and his own dyspeptic view of the job he finds morally important but distasteful.

Too bad that New York is so shadowy a presence in this tale of a high school party ending in murder, the killer is obvious and Sloan's well-plotted book can turn cartoonish.

-- Lev Raphael, Knight Ridder Newspapers

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