After The Mermaids Singing (see Forecasts, Oct. 28), her harrowing Gold Dagger winner, McDermid returns to her Manchester PI Kate Brannigan (last seen in Clean Break) for a fast-paced joyride that swoops and curves past (or right over) villains with barely a pause. Still mourning the death of her lover, Richard, Kate is hired by two ``barely comprehensible Glaswegian musicians'' to find out who is trashing their band's reputation by sending goons to break up their shows. She hasn't time to troll Manchester's music scene before friends complicate things by dropping bombshells. First, her business partner announces he's selling his share of the shop and moving to Australia; unfortunately, Kate lacks the funds to buy him out. Then her best friend, Alexis, says that she and her pregnant lover, Christine, need help. The gynecologist who, as Alexis puts it, ``worked with us'' on the pregnancy has been murdered, and Alexis believes that if Kate doesn't steal the relevant medical files they'll lose the baby. And that's if Kate can figure out who the doctor is: Alexis knows her as Helen Maitland, but the newspapers call her Sarah Blackstone. By the time Kate figures out who stabbed the mysterious doctor, she has forgotten why she's looking. But as Kate cruises along, whether setting up a trap with her chum DCI Della Prentice or cutting a deal with the ``Godfather of Manchester'' (who has a fake Italian accent), readers will happily keep up, even if it leaves them a little breathless. (Feb.) FYI: McDermid's Gold Dagger Award- winning mystery, The Mermaids Singing, is being published in the U.S. in December by HarperCollins.