Ed McBain, . . Simon & Schuster, $25 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-6250-7

McBain's latest, a sparkling departure from his 87th Precinct detective series, follows a week in the life of Floridian Alice Glendenning, a feisty 34-year-old widow who has fallen on tough times. Still grieving over her husband Eddie's drowning accident eight months earlier, Alice is now the stressed single mother of bright 10-year-old Ashley and sullen Jamie, eight, voiceless since his father's death. Money is tight: Eddie's life insurance payout hasn't arrived, and Alice, a struggling real estate agent, has yet to sell her first house. Things turn calamitous when Ashley and Jamie are kidnapped from their school yard by two women who demand $250,000—the exact amount due Alice from Eddie's double indemnity policy—and no police involvement or the children will be killed. Alice's housekeeper immediately alerts the authorities, and before long, the Glendenning residence is bleeping with telephone surveillance equipment and buzzing with bumbling Cape October police detectives. Alice leans on her friend Charlie Hobbs for levelheaded support after the unwelcome arrivals of countless "world-class snoops" like her shifty, jailbird brother-in-law; the annoying, airheaded woman who ran over Alice's foot; a smitten house hunter; and Alice's sister, Carol. As the ever-expanding houseful of irritating meddlers fuels her desperation, a shocking surprise awaits poor Alice. A swift, cleverly plotted story line, sassy dialogue and a well-drawn, resilient heroine make this gripper a hands-down success. As one of our most prolific and talented writers, McBain appears to have struck gold once again. Agent, Jane Gelfman at Gelfman Schneider. (Jan.)