Ardies' newest satire-suspense has a superb opening: a handful of strangers arrive one off-season night in Palm Springs in the same public limousine, all of them misfits. There's political-humor columnist Sargent (author of ""Play-Doh's Republic""), fresh from the loony bin and here to recuperate with his aunt. There's adventuress Jody on the make; famed architect St. Pierre on the run from his hideous ex-wife; a newlywed couple (she's rich and 70, he's poor and 45); and ""King"" Mallory--former mayor, congressman, and builder of Palm Springs, returning for the first time since a Washington sex scandal drove him to Oregon. As long as Ardies simply follows these people on their pathetic separate paths--some of which lead into the filthy heart of Palm Springs' real-estate biz and socializing, complete with Sinatra and Jerry Ford--the jaunty narrative is unfocused yet jumpily entertaining, spiced with raunchy dialogue and sharp digs. But when Ardies tries to bring the strangers together, in a real estate scheme to convert a slum canyon into an exclusive neighborhood, the satire and charm soon slip into hyperactive suspense clichÃ‰s: threats (""If you want to stay alive, get out of the canyon""), murders, and a frame-up. The two styles--offbeat character studies, heavily plotted mystery--don't really mesh here; the result is an over-busy mishmash with a lot of appealing moments instead of the sustained comic novel that Ardies seems capable of writing.