There's one nice surprise in this fair-to-middling installment of the annual anthology: ""Lucky Penny,"" in which Linda Barnes (author of the diverting Michael Spraggue novels), introduces Boston shamus Carlotta Carlyle--a jauntily fetching narrator, a put-upon part-time cab driver, and (in a neat robbery/murder case) a clever sleuth. The other standouts here are somewhat less fresh. John Lutz's somber ""Ride the Lightning"" (the Edgar-winner) features Midwestern shamus Nudger--who fails to save an innocent man from the electric chair but does, in a solid twist, unmask the real killer. Peter Lovesey demonstrates how an offbeat romantic triangle (a mild-mannered Casanova with two neatly compartmentalized mistresses) can lead to a tad of black-comic murder. And Loren Estleman's gritty ""Bloody July"" has Detroit's Amos Walker tracing a present-day killing back to pre-WW II gangland secrets--just as he did in a recent full-length outing. Elsewhere, the entries are disappointing or humdrum. ""Like a Bug on a Windshield"" is under-par Lawrence Block, an anecdote about homicidal mania among truck drivers that's neither creepily credible nor grimly humorous. The late Stanley Ellin's attempt at black-comic horror falls rather flat (with mercenary locals covering up some mad-scientist doings); Ruth Rendell is entirely off form with a strained tale of senile dementia; Clark Howard's ""Animals,"" after some initial charm, becomes a maudlin, heavy-handed polemic against animal experimentation. Plus: feverish family-gothic from Jane Rice, a sad case-history from Joyce Harrington, an implausible family-secret melodrama from Marcia Muller, and (inevitably) a routine Capt. Leopold mystery from editor Hoch. Not as weak as a few recent annuals, but far from distinguished.