Why the fruity brandywine of Diana Gabaldon's fiction intoxicates some readers while leaving others unmoved is just one of those puzzles of literary chemistry. In 1991, Gabaldon published Outlander, an exuberant 640-page mash-up of fantasy, historical romance, adventure, and arch comedy that introduced a time-traveling nurse, Claire Randall, and her doughty Scottish lover, Jamie Fraser. In five fat best-selling sequels, Gabaldon advanced their saga, set against a lushly detailed 18th-century backdrop laden with platters of roast pheasant and colorful turns of phrase (''I ken the look of a lass that's been well bedded''). Is Gabaldon's work vivid and transporting? Undeniably. Is it overripe, long-winded, and silly? Oh, aye. As your critic, I am on the fence: I can't recommend these breathless bodice rippers, but I ken their appeal, I do.
Four years ago, Gabaldon spun off a series with Lord John Grey, a minor character from the Outlander novels (one with a major unrequited crush on Jamie). Novices interested in taking the measure of Gabaldon's work might consider her uncharacteristically slender new volume, Lord John and the Hand of Devils, a likable trio of novellas.
The book begins with ''Lord John and the Hellfire Club,'' which finds Grey enjoying some claret at his London hangout, the deliciously named Society for the Appreciation of the English Beefsteak. As a clueless friend teases him about ''the ladies,'' Grey tries not to ogle Robert Gerald, a redhead (''Not copper, not carrot; a deep red, almost rufous, with glints and streaks of cinnabar and gold'') he spots across the room. (Grey is comfortable with his homosexuality, but discreet.) Before the day is done, Gerald has been stabbed, dying as Grey strokes his ''ruddy'' hair, and our noble hero is drawn into a hunt for the dastardly killer. He tackles this task with characteristic élan, intelligence, and fortitude, assisted by jeweled goblets of wine and meaningful glances from fetching men.
Meaningful glances must suffice for Grey, who, unlike Jamie and Claire, doesn't get much on-the-page action. (Nor is he a time traveler.) In the second novella, ''Lord John and the Succubus,'' Grey battles a she-devil preying on British soldiers, while he himself crushes on a Prussian officer. Finally, in ''Lord John and the Haunted Soldier,'' he tracks down the scoundrel responsible for a malfunctioning cannon and falls for a gunpowder manufacturer. The feverish, somewhat goofy whodunit plots don't hold up to scrutiny. Nonetheless, you may find yourself relishing the dishes of gooseberry trifle, the cozy afternoons at the Beefsteak Appreciation Society, and the companionship of this urbane 18th-century blade. B-