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Book Review : Crime-Watcher by Day, Thief by Night

March 05, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Neighborhood Watch by Mell Lazarus (Doubleday: $16.95)

To the catalogue of hard-boiled crime fiction, Mell Lazarus author of Momma and Miss Peach cartoons, has introduced an alternative entry. "Soft-boiled," you could call his daffy tale of a neighborhood housebreaker; or more exactly, "coddled."

For example, while we're on eggs: Loring Neiman, author and widower, precariously raising two young daughters in a well-to-do Brooklyn enclave, faces ruin when a novel on which he was to get a large advance unexpectedly is turned down. Rather than lose his house to the bank, he becomes a part-time burglar.

Well, the police are beginning to close in on Loring, who skitters through his neighbors' backyards in a midnight-blue track suit and orange ski mask. And at this point real, if whimsical, tension, we break for a six-line scene in the kitchen: Katie, who makes breakfasts of fried eggs and cupcakes for her father, is washing up. Do eggs get hard and stick in your stomach the way they do on dishes, she wonders.

Verges on Cuteness

This may sound forcedly cute. It isn't, really. "The Neighborhood Watch," which manages engagingly to be single-minded and absent-minded at the same time, does sometimes verge on cuteness. Largely, it avoids it, and accomplishes something else.

Desperate circumstances propel its hero into an extravagantly picaresque venture. But the plot never quite takes over the characters. Loring, his daughters, his assorted neighbors and the local police commander are all trying to go about their various quirky businesses. It is a comedy of obliviousness; like four people attempting to play a hand of bridge aboard a violently pitching ocean liner.

Loring, who has done nothing for two years but work at home on his novel and run up large debts, is a popular character in his neighborhood of lawyers, stockbrokers, businessmen, politicians and at least one retired gangster. He is their Bohemian mascot. So, when suddenly faced with disaster, he tries to borrow from several of the richer neighbors.

Close-knit as the community seems to be--everyone always is inviting each other to parties--it develops convenient holes. Loring is loved universally but nobody will lend him anything. On the other hand, he is able to sneak a hefty wad of money out of a bedroom during a party. And while attending community meetings to organize a crime-watch, Loring sees the chance to push things farther.

Barbed Portrait

Crime-watcher by day, and burglar by night, Loring builds up his mortgage money. At the same time he works on his writing, takes his daughters on outings, socializes and conducts a rather glibly told affair with a neighbor's unhappy wife.

The burglaries are half-comic, half-suspenseful adventures. Each one goes differently, producing not only money and jewelry, but a barbed and lively portrait of the neighbors. Loring finally is caught in a disorganized police effort that pits a blandly political precinct captain against a resentful and obsessed detective lieutenant. In a cheerfully ironic ending, the neighborhood that he has burgled comes to his rescue. It is as if his night work had been a kind of charitable levy enabling the neighbors, in spite of themselves, to do right by someone in trouble. And as if they were grateful for it.

Lazarus' book is an uneven mix of adventure, domestic comedy and fable. The author's control is often uncertain. Loring goes in and out of focus. It is not all good-fun; some of his escapades turn uncomfortably real. And he has a bad conscience, particularly at hurting his daughters when he is found out.

It does not all quite fit together, and the happy ending pretty well surpasses the belief. On the other hand, we are relieved to have our belief surpassed. The very unevenness in the author's grip on Loring is a price he pays for avoiding slickness. Finally we care about the amateur burglar and his little family. He is not quite a believable person, nor is he quite the hero of an urban fairy story. Yet he is a bit, and enough, of both.

At its best moments, "The Neighborhood Watch," reminds you of something directed by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra. Lazarus' characters have no depth, but they have an amiable insistance on being their own bumbling selves. Most contemporary crime or espionage novels, whether grim or farcical, use a variety of laconic, buttoned-up, and tough-minded characters to ride the speeding plot and provide a minimum of wind resistance. The passengers in Lazarus' plot, also speedy, are garrulous, unbuttoned and tender-minded. They spill all over, get in the way, fall out and don't quite fit; and in general, are very welcome.

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