BOOK REVIEW / Mayhem in Malibu: Voodoo, Ltd - Ross Thomas: Little, Brown pounds 14.99

THE elegant entertainments of Ross Thomas don't attract as much smart attention these days as the reports-from-the-gutter of such hardnoses as James Ellroy and Andrew Vachss. This is a shame, because they are witty, intricately plotted and - not a word that comes to mind in connection with the hardnoses - fun.

Voodoo, Ltd reintroduces those two wonderful reprobates from Chinaman's Chance, Artie Wu (pretender to the Chinese throne, and don't you forget it) and Quincy Durant. Artie is the brains, Quincy the brawn of Wudu, Ltd, high-class London private investigation agency. To put it another way, Quincy is laconic, Artie is inscrutable, and both are trustworthy. A little recession-hit at the moment, unfortunately, which means that Artie's twin sons' future at their posh school is in doubt.

The sudden appearance of international fixer Enno Glimm in Wudu's offices is therefore doubly providential - maybe the twins can go to Princeton after all. Glimm (whose vestigial German accent is what turns Wudu into Voodoo) has had them thoroughly checked out, even engineering his assistant Jenny into Durant's bed, and wants them to do a discreet and very lucrative job.

Hollywood hyphenate (as in actress-director) Ione Gamble has been arrested for the murder of her fiance, the slimy Billy Rice. Ione has alcohol-induced blackouts, and although Rice undoubtedly had it coming, she's sure she didn't do it. Her lawyer calls on his old contact Enno Glimm to lay on a couple of hypnotists to see if they can summon up the missing hours. The trouble is that Glimm's chosen hypnotists turn out to be perverts, and promptly go AWOL after a couple of sessions without revealing what they've discovered. Glimm, having guaranteed them, suddenly has a reputation to lose. Pausing only to gather up their trusted associates (Booth Stallings, the terrorism expert, conman 'Otherguy' Overby, and former Secret Servicewoman Georgia Blue, who has to be sprung from jail in Manila), Artie and Quincy head for Malibu and set up their headquarters in the late Billy Rice's beach house. Then the fun begins . . .

Although Thomas doesn't neglect the technology, the 9mm Berettas, the Uzis, the Mercedes 500SL coupes and so on, it is as subordinate to the plot and the entertainment as it was in Dorothy Sayers or Margery Allingham, which makes a nice change. There is a kind of surrealist filter over the lens which makes the pretender to the Chinese throne, married to a Scotswoman and with twin sons called Arthur and Angus, a perfectly acceptable hero for a mystery largely set in Malibu. The writing is springy and pacy, with some satisfying Chandleresque one-liners: 'He wore a thick black moustache and the resigned air of someone who has learned nine languages and now wonders why he went to the bother.'

All in all, it's terrific entertainment from the new President of the Mystery Writers of America. The only annoyance is the jacket art, which features two plainclothes cops, neither of whom bears the faintest resemblance to anyone in the book, one talking on the radio in a Ford Sierra in a dark cobbled street in what might be Brussels. Did it perhaps stray off another book by mistake?

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