British novelist Crace again proves himself an assured storyteller and master craftsman in his third novel, a sardonic, witty morality tale. Moreover, he seems a brilliant chameleon. His previous books, Continent and The Gift of Stones (both acclaimed by reviewers) were different from each other in style, tone, and technique, and in this one too, he strikes out in new directions as he propells a mesmerizing narrative bristling with ironic asides. Victor is an aged, eccentric millionaire who has come far from his origins as the child of a beggar woman in an unnamed British city's marketplace. Now he owns the entire area, called the Soap Market, but has removed himself from the world and rarely ventures forth from his penthouse office. His trusted minion, Rook, himself a child of country parents, has grown devious and greedy, and demands bribes from the greengrocers; Victor sacks him when he discovers the man's treachery. Rook's desire for vengeance jeopardizes Victor's plan to ``share'' his millions by building a modern, glass-enclosed marketplace, which a pretentious Italian architect dubs Arcadia. Crace's theme here is the way cities corrupt men who grow sophisticated and wealthy. Arcadia--``a rustic paradise''-- can never be re-created in an urban setting; progress sweeps away the enriching past and puts people at a remove from the natural world. Crace does not falsely sentimentalize his country characters, however; they are merely less shrewd than their arrogant urban counterparts. His prose is energetic and sensuous, teeming with apt and stunning imagery. The narrative does not falter until its final pages, when its unalloyed mordancy begins to seem overdone. But this is a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant work. Major ad/promo. (Oct.) .