Buy this book?

By Marne Davis Kellogg

Bantam, $5.99, 320 pp., October 1998

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg

Lilly Bennett -- private investigator, part-time U.S. marshal, heiress to a Wyoming beef and oil fortune -- is asked by ninety-year-old millionaire Cyrus Vaile to add another line to her resume: member of the board of trustees for the local theater company. For years, Vaile's money has backed the Roundup, Wyoming, Repertory Theater. Convinced that twenty million dollars has been stolen from an endowment fund, he wants Lilly to join the board to help him find it.

Lilly intends to refuse the invitation, but two things happen to change her mind: Vaile announces at his birthday party that she has accepted; and, minutes later, he drops dead. Suspecting poisoning, Lilly is quickly active on the case in three roles: as a U.S. marshal assisting the local police; as a board member studying the dynamics and relationships in the theater, where everyone is a liar by profession; and as a private investigator protecting George Wrightsman, the artistic genius behind Roundup Rep's success and the likely next target of the killer.

The third book in the Lilly Bennett series, TRAMP has all the elements of a contemporary female P.I. novel. Lilly has a stormy relationship with her mother, a force of nature who makes the world conform to her and who never misses a chance to lament her fifty-year-old daughter's unmarried state. Richard, Lilly's love interest, is a champion cowboy and opera company manager, whose reluctance to propose is assumed to be at least in part due to her unwillingness to sacrifice her independence. Jack Lewis, the local chief of detectives, is both resentful of and dependent on Lilly's involvement in big cases to help him look good.

The mystery needs assistance from some subplots -- the pending marriage of Lilly's goddaughter, the troubled relationship between Lilly's brother and her secretary -- to support all these weightly characterizations, and doesn't bear undistracted scrutiny. The pool of suspects is somewhat limited; Lilly concentrates her attention on the same few characters, for no obvious reason. She makes use of some improbable connections -- her father is the president of the local bank; a former (and future?) lover, the commander of a local Army base -- and some improbable skills -- can you really lipread a lunchtime conversation from across a room while wearing dark glasses? -- to help her in the case. In fact, by the time you throw in her mashal's badge, her degree in toxicology, and her family's money and connections, it's little wonder that she catches the killer.

But who killed Cyrus Vaile is not the driving question in TRAMP. The real question is, will Richard propose, and what will happen if he doesn't? For readers more interested in the second question than the first, TRAMP offers a transporting and lavish escape to Wyoming high society, with a little murder and adventure thrown in for good measure.

The Lilly Bennett series, in order of publication, is BAD MANNERS, CURTSEY, TRAMP, and NOTHING BUT GOSSIP.

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