By Sue Grafton

A distraught mother is convinced that her daughter's death was at the hands of a murderer still on the loose. An incriminating videotape shows the victim, Lorna Kepler, to be more than a random target. A weary detective looks at a body and a life that offer little in the way of clues. All these faces and facts come to the attention of P.I. Kinsey Millhone, who is, as always, working on too much coffee and too little sleep.

Millhone soon finds herself knee-deep in vice and violence in the fictional town of Santa Teresa. The 11th book in this series (J Is for Judgment, I Is for Innocent) is, by far, the eeriest. Grafton exhibits a sharp ear for dialogue and a quarter-horse pace. Her characters are as real as any this side of Elmore Leonard. K Is for Killer offers further proof of Grafton's growth as a writer. This is one mystery series that gains strength with each passing letter. (Holt, $22.95)

By Lisa Shea

Memory is the driving force behind Shea's carefully observed first novel, narrated by the younger of two sisters; description is its strong point. The father is a war veteran with angry blue eyes and a metal plate in the back of his head that, at certain angles, is struck by sunlight "like signals from a flying saucer.'' The mother, a former dancer who once caught her husband's attention doing the hula at a luau, now feels trapped: "...her shoulders drop forward the way they used to when she would show us the shimmy. She starts to cry, a strangled off sound without any tears."

In such an atmosphere, two girls grow up without the proper measure of parental love. This frustration fosters between them a rapport that is channeled into a sexual fascination with bold neighborhood boys. Shea, a PEOPLE contributor, chooses to keep the beam of her novel tightly within the point of view of her 10-year-old narrator. The technique enables her to deliver original images that have a staggering immediacy but keeps the peculiar parents permanently in shadow. (Norton, $17.95)

By William Caddis

Anyone who dreams of their day in court might wisely heed the plight of Oscar Crease, the hero of A Frolic of His Own. Plaintiff, defendant and lay expert in countless lawsuits, Oscar lounges around his dilapidated Long Island estate waiting (or news of any impending settlement. When he is not drinking exotic wine or watching nature shows on television, he is railing against a system that he expects to compensate him.

Oscar's current obsession is his plagiarism suit against the producers of a multimillion-dollar Hollywood movie that bears a striking resemblance to a Civil War-era play he once wrote. As the legalities start to consume him, the novel becomes less about litigation than about finding some reward for life's misfortunes. Harry, Oscar's brother-in-law, an attorney himself, realizes how futile this is. "Justice?" he asks. "You get justice in the next world; in this world you have the law." Oscar, his family and friends—all of whom are seeking their own reparations—ignore him. Constantly pleading their cases, they listen to each other only when they gel interrupted.

A Frolic of His Own is written almost entirely in dialogue with little punctuation. Gaddis is an inventive, sophisticated writer. The argument he has prepared for and against Oscar Crease is a dizzy romp of a novel—important, original and intelligent. (Poseidon, $25)

By Mary Higgins Clark

A casual observer would conclude that Menley Nichols has a charmed life: a devoted husband, a healthy infant daughter, a career as the author of a successful series of young adult novels—and now, she has Remember House, a rambling, ocean-front Cape Cod haven where the family will spend the summer. But Menley is only beginning to deal with the death of her 2-year-old son in a car accident for which she was responsible. The birth of a new baby has left her vulnerable, disoriented and, her husband suspects, dangerous to their child.

In other words, Menley is a heroine ripe for a Mary Higgins Clark mystery—and Clark has set her down in a doozy. A ghost story with a contemporary edge, Remember Me is filled with the long-ago pain of Remember House's first mistress, a sea captain's wife who was wrenched from her newborn after being falsely accused of adultery. As the pressure mounts to separate Menley from her baby, she struggles to find the true villain in this parallel, 18th-century betrayal. She also befriends a local man, who is under investigation for the murder of his heiress wife.

Clark last ventured into similar gothic terrain in The Anastasia Syndrome (1989). While that experiment was only partially successful, Remember Me pulls it off brilliantly, harkening back to the best of Daphne DuMaurier. (Simon & Schuster, $23.50)

by Hilma Wolitzer

Linda Reismann, feisty heroine of Wolitzer's Tunnel of Love, can't get a break. Newly widowed, pregnant, broke and the reluctant guardian of a snarly teenage stepdaughter—all before she's even reached her 29th birthday—she decides to move from Newark to Los Angeles, golden city of opportunity. There, Linda meets Manny, a liquor-store owner who offers her a job and falls in love with her. Just as all her prayers seem to be answered, Manny is fatally shot in a holdup while Linda is in the hospital giving birth to her daughter.

Wolitzer, author of five previous novels including In the Palomar Arms and Hearts, is a master of emotional control. At its best, Tunnel of Love is an engrossing story, full of twists and turns: the L.A. riots, a hitchhiking incident with a psycho, a near-fatal car crash and a demented Hollywood producer all fall into the mix. Although it may seem Wolitzer is trying to fit the afflictions of the 1990s into a single character's life, her theme of hope's triumph over suffering and love over adversity makes Tunnel of Love a compelling novel with a message. (HarperCollins, $20)

By Meg Wolitzer

The ups and downs of lifelong friendship is the territory of Meg Wolitzer's charming new novel. Meredith. Lisa and Ann have known one another forever—or at least since their suburban girlhood—and they meet once a month at a local Chinese restaurant. They form an unlikely trio. Meredith is the beauty, Lisa is the "nice" one and Ann is the brains. They like to joke that if you put them all together, they'd form Miss Universe. Now in their late 20s, the characters might not have become friends if they hadn't grown up in the same town. But "they had a history together, they would tell people, although sometimes the word seemed grandiose, as though the three of them had all been members of the French Resistance."

Indeed, their history is what keeps these women bonded, even as Meredith becomes a successful television personality, Lisa marries and has a child, and Ann becomes a lesbian activist. In Friends for Life, Wolitzer answers a question—do childhood friendships stand a chance against the ups and downs of adulthood—with a resounding, joyful "yes." We root for her characters as they pick their way through the emotional minefield of urban life—wishing success not for any single one but for the friendship that seems greater than the sum of its parts. (Crown, $20)

Hilma and Meg Wolitzer

LIKE MOTHER LIKE DAUGHTER

HILMA WOLITZER, 64, USED TO BE a housewife who wrote fiction at her kitchen table in Syosset, N.Y., with dogs and kids romping underfoot. Six novels later, although the rooftops of Manhattan are visible from the sunlit, book-lined apartment that she shares with her husband, Morton, a psychologist, Hilma has not forgotten her roots: a painted map of the town of Syosset has a place of honor in her guest bathroom.

One of the kids who was underfoot has grown up to be a novelist just like Mom: Meg Wolitzer, now 35 and married to journalist Richard Panek, lives and writes only a few blocks away from her mother's Upper East Side home, with her own 3-year-old son, Gabriel, in the next room. "There's a real discipline imposed by having children," notes Meg. "It makes you resourceful. I think having a baby can make you more productive."

"Can I borrow your baby?" Hilma jokes. Indeed, family and literature seem to be at the core of this mother-daughter duo who laughingly refer to themselves as "the literary world's answer to the Judds."

It was an accident that both Wolitzer's books were published at the same time, but they see it as a stroke of luck. Before embarking on their seven-city promotion tour that ends this week just before Mother's Day, Meg was looking forward to "sharing everything but hotel rooms." The only downside, teased Hilma: "Meg was afraid that I would knit mother-daughter reading outfits."

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • Joseph Olshan,
  • Thomas Curwen,
  • Susan Toepfer,
  • Dani Shapiro.