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In new mysteries, writers let go of the linear

The Poet’s Funeral
By John M. Daniel
Poisoned Pen, 257 pp., $24.95

By Stephen Spignesi
Bantam, 368 pp., $23

Tin City
By David Housewright
St. Martin’s, 288 pp., $23.95

Perhaps it's not a new trend, but I'm noticing how many recent crime novels eschew a linear unfolding of plot in favor of a shuffle-and-deal approach. ''The Poet's Funeral," by John M. Daniel, is a case in point.

The novel opens with the obituary of Heidi Yamada, a poet with more talent for self-promotion than for writing poems. Narrator Guy Mallon reveals the events leading up to Yamada's death. Interspersed are eulogies, each from another character with a motive for murder.

In a flashback from years earlier, Yamada shows up and wheedles Mallon into hiring her to work in his Santa Barbara bookstore. In short order, she seduces him (''Short men fall in love too easily") and informs him that he is going to publish her book of poems. ''How difficult can it be?" she asks, undeterred by the fact that he's not a publisher and she's never written a poem. A week later, she presents Mallon with ''And Vice Versa." By the time he publishes it, Yamada has moved on to her next amorous conquest and publisher.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, during a private party at an American Booksellers Association convention in Las Vegas, Mallon discovers Yamada dead of a drug overdose in the bedroom of the Elvis Presley Memorial Mansion, where else but in a ''king-sized, King-sized bed."

Never mind that, at times, this plot seems to unfold like a game of Clue -- was it author Maxwell Black in the bedroom, or book review editor Taylor Bingham in the ballroom? And so what if the story sometimes seems to skitter forward like a needle on a scratched record? This is a very readable novel with a sendup of the publishing industry, told fast and loose by an appealing narrator. Dead poets never had so much fun.

Stephen Spignesi takes another nontraditional approach in ''Dialogues," an impressive debut novel. In a prologue, it's ''euthanasia day" at a New Haven animal shelter. Tory Troy works with robotic efficiency. She tethers the abandoned pets, turns on the gas, waits the requisite amount of time, vents the chamber, and opens the door.

From that moment on, the novel reads like a case file. Unadorned transcripts of interviews between Troy and a court-appointed psychologist make it clear that Troy has been charged with murdering six co-workers by injecting them with a paralyzing toxin and then gassing them in the chamber used to euthanize pets.

Gradually, through more interviews, court transcripts, letters, and stories Troy wrote during her school years, the reader learns about this young woman and the uneasy peace she's made with her job: ''her duties are terrible, but she takes some comfort in knowing they are also merciful." She freely admits to killing her co-workers, though she can't explain precisely why.

There's a free-floating quality to this kind of storytelling, devoid of character description, setting, and narrative summary; even he-said, she-said attributions have to be inferred. And yet, with just a fraction of the novelist's tools, Spignesi creates an engrossing situation and reveals layer upon layer of a sympathetic main character who seems to embrace the inevitable outcome: to be found sane, guilty, and condemned to death.

The ending contains a trick that in any other novel would have had me throwing the book across the room. But here it works, demonstrating that cardinal rule of crime-fiction writing: Write a good enough book, and you can break any rule and get away with it.

This is a novel well worth reading from a writer well worth getting to know.

Traditional storytelling prevails in ''Tin City," by Edgar-winning author David Housewright. Set in the Twin Cities, this is the second series novel featuring Rushmore McKenzie, a retired cop who lives off a $3 million bounty on an embezzler he captured and spends his time doing favors for friends.

Tough guy McKenzie is afraid of bees, and the novel opens with his longtime friend and father figure, elderly beekeeper Mr. Mosley, asking him for a favor: figure out why so many of Mosley's bees are dying.

McKenzie readily agrees. (''If Mr. Mosley had asked me to jump off the Lake Street Bridge I would have said yes.") That decision puts him on a collision course with a vicious gangster who's holed up in a nearby house.

Humor and snappy dialogue lull the reader into a false sense of security. In short order, one of the more delightful characters I've met on the printed page gets murdered, another raped, and what starts out as a science project turns into a mission to mete out vigilante justice.

The search for the bad guys takes McKenzie to a trailer park, the tin city of the novel's title, where he meets some quirky characters, a pretty woman (McKenzie has a soft spot for blue eyes), and a bent FBI agent.

This is a novel about going after the right guy for the wrong reasons, and the wrong guy for the right reasons. It's got twists and double-crosses, exciting car chases and gun battles, leavened by plenty of laughs -- a noirish novel with emphasis on the ish.

Hallie Ephron is co-author of ''Guilt," the fifth Dr. Peter Zak psychological mystery thriller by G. H. Ephron.

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