Labor Day looms! Time to restock your beach bag for page-turning pleasure. We sift the finds from the follies:

by Elizabeth George

George doesn't find much humor in murder. Or in life. Her literate, painstakingly plotted mysteries—A Suitable Vengeance, A Great Deliverance—are riddled with emotional despair and intellectual gloom.

Fortunately New Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley can still muster a chuckle or two, even though he's circling the first anniversary of his split from Lady Helen Clyde. To be near Lady Helen, who is visiting her sister in Cambridge, Lynley accepts an assignment there: to investigate the bludgeoning death of a beautiful student, the daughter of a history professor. Along for the ride, and providing her own sad, cynical asides, is Det. Inspector Barbara Havers—who has a different but equally lonely burden. "Her mother was 63 years old. Her health was excellent. It was only her mind that was dying."

Lynley and Havers will come closer to resolving their own crises as they probe the death of a girl who was both less and more than she seemed. Elena Weaver, born deaf yet reared to pass for a hearing child, had spent her final months as the project of her guilty father, who had abandoned her when she was 5. Disliked by her stepmother, she also had her share of campus enemies—a professor she charged with sexual harassment; an ambitious graduate student of her father's; a leader of the Deaf Students Union whom she dated, then shunned.

Revenge, spite, jealousy, greed: George exposes her characters' vulnerabilities as well as their basest drives. Conversations crackle with anger and need, every revelation a possible clue. The murder's solution, of course, is horrifying—why should it be less so than the deed?—as George goes to the head of her genre, with class. (Bantam, $20)

by Anne Rivers Siddons

This soap opera of a novel, told by a 90-year-old narrator, Maude Gascoigne, begins one magical night in 1920s Charleston when, as a Southern girl, Maude is swept off her feet by her Yankee prince, Peter Williams Chambliss. They marry and move to New England, spending summers at an exclusive colony on the coast of Maine. There, over the years, Maude battles Peter's snobby, possessive mother and raises her own troubled children and ill-fated grandchildren. For reasons never fully explained, Maudè grows to love the colony so much that she's willing to do whatever it takes to protect it.

Siddons, the author of such modern Southern tales as Outer Banks and King's Oak, offers an interesting glimpse into an era when rich families picnicked with silver tea services and proffered engraved calling cards.

Her insight into her exaggerated characters is less perceptive. They are simply rich, dissipated preppies and repressed, petty wives. Moreover, the book is filled with unintended irony. Presented as a strong woman, Maude bursts into tears 30 times, is saved by the loyal handyman five: times and confronts her selfish husband exactly once. In the end, all that adds up to is a novel that is less than the sum of its plots. (HarperCollins, $20)

by Ruth Rendell

Rendell's 15th Wexford mystery, the first in four years, starts with a hang as an off-duty detective sergeant is killed in a hank holdup. But it's with the next five bangs, resulting in three deaths at a grand old manor house in a middle-of-nowhere English forest, that we really settle in to enjoy the conundrums that confront Rendell's punctilious sleuth, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford.

Motives and suspects abound. among them hitter housekeepers, a dim-witted cleaning woman, four young men attracted to Daisy, the 17-year-old heiress and sole survivor of the manor house murders, and Daisy's father, who hasn't seen her since she was a baby but who would have inherited the family fortune had she too died. And, of course, the bank and estate slayings may be linked.

Meanwhile Wexford's daughter, Sheila, is giving him more cause for worn than usual, threatening to give up her successful acting career for her latest beau, Augustine Casey, a postmodern novelist and pompous ass. Wexford transfers his fatherly instincts, leading him to take a more than professional interest in Daisy's case.

You don't guzzle Kissing the Gunner's Daughter. You sip it, savoring the subtle, sophisticated flavor, as rich as a cup of Earl Grey. (The Mysterious Press, $19.95)

by Larry McMurtry

The once interesting saga of Aurora Greenway, the feisty centerpiece of Terms of Endearment, grinds to an annoying and well deserved hall in this long winded follow-up.

When we first catch up to Aurora (played so winningly in the film by Shirley MacLaine), now 71, she's trying to hold on to her very old boyfriend, the General, and help him deal with his sudden impotency. She must also deal with her dead daughter's ne'er-do-well children.

While The Evening Star has all the ingredients for a fine and whimsical novel, it hick-the locus and driving narrative of McMurtry's earlier works. Aurora's charm has eroded, turning her into no more than fodder for a mediocre TV movie. (Simon & Schuster, $23)

by Jack Higgins

Never one to let a war slide by un-exploited, Higgins draws on our altercation with Saddam Hussein to spin another of his adroit, highly entertaining "What if?" thrillers. Where The Eagle Has Landed sent German S.S. officers to assassinate Winston Churchill, Eye has the Iraqis trying to scuttle Operation Desert Storm by hiring a former IRA terrorist to bump off Margaret Thatcher as the former Prime Minister enters a crucial cabinet meeting on the war.

Only American Special Forces Officer Martin Brosnan can foil the plot. While the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is sharp, the settings topical and the plot twists harrowing. As Brosnan pursues his quarry, sinister bargains are carved out of wartime alliances, and bodies fall from the pages. (822.95, Putnam)

by Linda Svendsen

An interlocking though not chronological series of short stories, Marine Life is a wonderfully observed portrait of a Vancouver blue-collar family, most specifically the family's youngest member, Adele Nordstrom.

Adele plays chaperon to her drifter alcoholic hall brother, Ray, companion to her half sister, Joyce, an abused wife, and confidante to her mother, June, a sometime cabaret pianist who believes that a bad marriage is preferable to no marriage. So it would seem. She's on husband No. 3, a loudmouthed, philandering vulgarian.

Water imagery flows through Marine Life—turtles caught in the tide, a run through sprinklers, a senior citizen swimming class, a suicide jump off a bridge—yet the imagery never seems contrived. The two pieces that stand out most sharply—and most chillingly—center on Adele and her rather too pretty, treacherous stepsister, Louise, and on Adele and her own inadvertent treachery toward her niece and terminally ill half sister, Irene. Svendsen never fails to make (dear that, however unintentionally, home is where the hurt is. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17)

by Carol Higgins Clark

Clark, daughter of best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark, has borrowed conspicuously, if not heavily, from life for her own mystery debut. Her sleuth, Regan Reilly, is also the daughter of a famous mystery writer.

Attending a 10-year reunion of her Junior Year Abroad program at St. Polycarp's Academy in Oxford, private eye Regan is questioned by police when the body of her long-ago roommate, a rich Greek girl who everyone thought had run away, turns up in the nearby woods. Regan cannot escape Athena's ghost even on the luxury liner that soon returns her to America.

Clark has a lot of fun on the Queen Guinevere, where her spoiled, smart-aleck heroine casts wary, critical eyes on the odd lot of elderly vacationers. Coincidentally, Regan's parents are on board, with mother Nora Regan Reilly, a woman who "could never keep track of what age she had told interviewers she was," trying to dodge Lady Exner, who has long held hopes of hiring Nora to write her memoirs.

But there are more ominous deceptions at work as Regan glides through the ship's social calendar, piecing together her dead roommate's past.

Blending her mother's flair for balancing numerous plot lines with her own quirkier view of the world, Clark has produced a sharp and satisfying mystery. Decked also introduces a character who, if she outgrows her penchant for occasionally sophomoric sarcasm, can easily carry a dozen more books. (Warner, $17.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Toepfer,
  • Jill Rachlin,
  • Carol Peace,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • Joanne Kaufman.