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In `The New Woman' by Jon Hassler, Senior investigates in sweet mystery

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``The New Woman'' by Jon Hassler; Viking ($23.95)


Novelist Jon Hassler created the village of Staggerford, Minn., in 1977. He populated it with many quirky characters, but over the years one woman has taken over his imagination, and the town as well. Her name is Agatha McKee: spinster schoolteacher, the terror of two generations of sixth-graders at St. Isidore's, arbiter of all that is correct in Staggerford and elsewhere.

Sit up straight and don't chew that toast with your mouth open.

Hassler has given Agatha many adventures over the years. In his latest, "The New Woman," he removes her from her lovely old farmhouse and traps her in a seniors' apartment building. She's 87; maybe it's time for a simpler, quieter life.

Or not.

A chance mention of the MX missile - Ronald Reagan's favorite ICBM, the one designed to be carted around on trains to keep its location secret - to her longtime friend and neighbor Lillian gets Agatha involved in a scheme to keep certain valuables in a shoebox and have a select group of friends take turns hiding it for safekeeping. None of the group actually puts anything valuable in the shoebox, but they guard it with great solemnity.

Then it gets misplaced.

And somehow this drags Agatha into digging up a grave, kidnapping a child and confronting a murderess.

Hassler's stories are small and sometimes predictable, but his characters seem very real. My favorite of his books is "North of Hope," about a priest who comes back to his little hometown after 20 years and encounters the sweetheart he left behind and the miserable life she made without him.

Fans of Jan Karon's Mitford series will likely enjoy Hassler's books. The authors share an affection for their characters, with an implied fondness for their readers. Come into my world, they suggest, you'll be welcome here.

Hassler, however, is the superior talent. His writing is nuanced and perceptive - he describes Agatha as "a pre-emptive woman" because she can't bear waiting around for other people - and for all the whimsy in his characters' predicaments, they also suffer genuine fear and pain.

Not so much, though, in "The New Woman." Agatha's plight, marooned as she is in an apartment building full of silver-haired wackos, is made clear, but handled gently. "The New Woman" is very amusing. Agatha is funnier than she realizes, and yet she's so formidable in the way of old-school teachers that the reader hardly dares to snicker.

And, as in Mitford, things work out in Staggerford, one way or the other. The coffin goes back in the ground, the child goes home and the murderess gets what she deserves.

If your heart needs lifting, read "The New Woman."

If you can handle drama, read "North of Hope," coming out in paperback next year.

Whichever title you choose, read Jon Hassler. He's one of my favorites.


(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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