Tom De Haven
December 12, 1997 AT 05:00 AM EST

With its skulking butlers, exotic poisons, and footprints in the garden, the English murder mystery — where crime is a puzzle, not a social problem — remains one of the book world’s most satisfying pleasures. There’s something comforting about a well-mannered Scotland Yard inspector checking train schedules against alibis, then announcing the killer’s identity in the novel’s last few pages. These days, English whodunits come with all the familiar trappings, but they’d probably scandalize Agatha Christie: Kinky sex is as likely to be the motive for murder as his lordship’s stamp collection. Here’s the latest British brainteaser from a modern master, plus a sampling of other recent ”novels of deduction” now out in paperback. In A Certain Justice, the latest addition to the Adam Dalgliesh series by P.D. James, London barrister Venetia Aldridge is defending Garry Ashe, who stands accused of slashing his aunt’s throat. After his acquittal, the malevolent Ashe stuns Aldridge by announcing his engagement to her 18-year-old daughter. Aldridge vows to block the wedding but then turns up dead, stabbed through the heart, a blood-soaked judicial wig jammed on her head. Commander Adam Dalgliesh gathers together his homicide squad, and…well, you know the drill: interviews, interviews, and more interviews.

James hasn’t lost her knack for devising labyrinthine plots tricked up with old-fashioned misdirection. And for all her traditionalism, she injects a startling dose of cynicism into the proceedings. Following a jaw-dropping twist at the very end of A Certain Justice, we’re left with the genre-subversive notion that justice can sometimes be snookered.

You won’t happen upon any such heresy in Elizabeth George, who writes her oh-so-British mysteries from her home in Huntington Beach, Calif. In The Presence of the Enemy, probably her best book, finds Simon St. James and Lady Helen Clyde, George’s London-based private detectives, going in search of the kidnapped daughter of a Conservative member of Parliament. Even with a touch of sadism and lots of dirty politics, this is, above all, a cozy mystery rife with characters who actually say things like ”How perspicacious.”

Nearly as important to the classic English mystery as a convenient corpse is the personality of the master detective. While St. James and Lady Helen are abundantly clever, both are deficient in winning eccentricities (same goes for Adam Dalgliesh, though to give him his due, he does write minor poetry in his spare time). Much more in the grand tradition of oddball sleuths like Hercule Poirot and Peter Wimsey are Reginald Hill’s corpulent Yorkshire policeman Andrew Dalziel and Colin Dexter’s cranky Inspector Morse.

In Hill’s The Wood Beyond, a group of animal-rights activists discovers human remains on the grounds of a drug company’s research facility — thus entangling Detective Superintendent Dalziel in a slippery mystery, not to mention a romance with a woman who’s his equal in appetite and ingenuity. The Way Through the Woods is Colin Dexter’s playful wink at one of the English mystery story’s cherished conceits: The detective, on holiday, finds himself mixed up in business as usual. On vacation at a seaside hotel, the ever grumbling Inspector Morse can’t resist matching wits with the clue-dropping kidnapper (and possible killer) of a missing Swedish exchange student.

Fiendishly crafted, stylish, and flashing with sly good humor, both Dexter’s and Hill’s police procedurals — like George’s and James’ — feel completely contemporary. Yet they remain true to the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and Miss Jane Marple.

There will always be an England, and a dead body in a library somewhere.

A Certain Justice: A- In the Presence of the Enemy: B The Wood Beyond: B+ The Way Through the Woods: B+

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