Mark Harris
March 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Wild Kat

Current Status
In Season
Karen Kijewski
Mystery and Thriller, Fiction

We gave it a B

We make two contradictory demands of written detective series: We want each installment to be as familiar as a Columbo rerun, and, over and over again, we want to be surprised. In Wild Kat (Doubleday, $19.95), the fifth in a string of mysteries featuring California PI Kat Colorado, Karen Kijewski caters skillfully to both of these needs. What’s familiar is the kind of investigator she is: tough, single, beautiful, early 30s, hard-bitten, and, in prose style, the illegitimate child of Raymond Chandler and Roseanne Arnold (check the mystery shelves of your local bookstore-she has half a dozen identical sisters who practice under different names). What’s surprising, as it should be, is the mystery itself-a whodunit that begins as a who’s-gonna-do-it and ends as a maybe-she-deserved- it. The titles of the Kat novels (Katapult, Kat’s Cradle, and so on) are the only things about them that are cutesy or forced; for the most part, Kijewski’s writing moves with the lean, confident swagger that this genre demands-and fortunately, she’s a skilled plotter. Wild Kat begins when Kat is hired to safeguard a young woman who has discovered that her employer is manufacturing defective heart valves and settling out of court on a death-by- death basis rather than issuing a recall. The more vigorously she blows the whistle, the more ominously she’s warned off. When things take a turn for the worse (I’m not giving anything away that you won’t know by page 86), Kat finds herself with a long list of suspects, and her sympathies, and ours, begin to slide around intriguingly. The second half of Wild Kat offers a number of jolting plot turns, and not just of the boo! variety; moral ambivalence is a rare and satisfying development in a mystery. Although the novel ends on a perfunctory note-you can already feel Kat shaking out and limbering up for volume six-the way Kijewski gets us there is smooth and efficient. It’s no surprise to learn that before turning to mysteries, she worked as a bartender; she knows exactly when to talk and when to let her characters talk. That’s an invaluable quality in both professions, especially since mystery writers and bartenders have to make their livings the same way- repeat business. With a little luck, this series could keep customers satisfied into Kat’s golden years. Let’s hope Kijewski comes up with a new title gimmick before she has to use Kataract. B

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