The author's first foray into contemporary times (Death in a Deck Chair, etc.) displays a fine-tuned eye and ear and a benignly critical edge. Nerdy but nice University of Washington professor Charles Carstairs, recently refused tenure on the advice of nasty chairman Roland Bateman, is grateful but bewildered when the Cosmo Car Center in Seattle is bestowed on him by slipshod, none-too-ethical Uncle Cosmo, who's just won big in the lottery and can't wait to get to the Bahamas. But Charles, no slouch under the chassis, has just started to sort out his troubles--with customer complaints, bounced checks, tax and building codes, and the trio of incompetents who run the place--when the corpse of Professor Bateman is found welded into the trunk of a junked Volvo on the premises. As it turns out, Charles' single constructive move was the hiring of Sylvia Snow as temporary bookkeeper. Sylvia, a one-time ballet dancer--with both feet firmly on the ground, despite her ethnic get-ups--manages to straighten out the business, guide the thick city-detectives to the murderer, and even instill a bit of gumption into Charles before it's all over. Sylvia is a winner. So is the author's funny survey of the Cosmo Car Center, which will strike a familiar chord of dismay in the car-owning reader. Good work from Beck, whose unhackneyed stories get better all the time.