Archy McNally, Lawrence Sanders's sleuth in McNally's Dilemma, takes the call one minute before he turns off his machine at midnight. It is his old friend Melva, with some bad news. Geoff Williams, erstwhile tennis pro, four-flusher cad, and husband to Melva, has met an untimely end a bullet through his chest. Melva has called Archy to report the murder and to confess that she did it. Of course, Archy and we have been around murder mysteries long enough to know that the murderer is never, never, the one who claims she did it at the beginning of the book. But unraveling the plot takes us through Sanders's special domain, the Palm Beach cafe society set, and the parasites who live off of it.

Archy's first job is to find Melva's daughter and fetch her back to the murder scene. She turns out, of course, to be the requisite gorgeous twentysomething. And, of course, she finds Archy irresistible, even though he is older. In the end Archy finds the real murderer, returns to his long-term girlfriend, and enjoys his gibson at the Pelican Club, ready for the next adventure.

It may be a formula, but this book is packed with charm. There is, for one thing, Archy himself: sardonic, sartorially challenged, the son of the best society lawyer in Palm Beach, booted out of Yale Law, and now a private eye. Think Travis McGee in an ascot. He is fond enough of unusual hats that he has berets custom made in Connecticut in puce, among other colors. He also has enough quirky wise cracks to rival a Groucho Marx movie: The music was pure disco, the beat of which has always reminded me of how the ogre's heart must have sounded when he chased Jack around the beanstalk. Even the minor characters especially the minor characters are loaded with the eccentricity and texture that make you think Sanders just can't be making this up.

Americans, I'm told, love to read about rich people. If that is true, then Sanders has hit his market, but with a delightful band of villains and friends in this picaresque, charming whodunit.

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