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Taming a Sea-Horse: by Robert B. Parker (Delacorte: $15.95; 250 pp.)

July 06, 1986|James Brown | Brown, author of "Hot Wire" (Arbor House), is at work on another novel, to be published by William Morrow & Co. and

Private detective Spenser fast- talks his way in and out of trouble in Robert B. Parker's "Taming a Sea-Horse." From New York's 42nd Street to the Crown Prince Clubs--a chain of prostitution resorts for the wealthy--tough guy Spenser searches for April Kyle, a hooker who has mysteriously disappeared.

This is Parker's 13th Spenser novel, and in many respects, it is a better book than his previous best seller, "A Catskill Eagle." The plot is less convoluted, contrived, and the violence is seldom gratuitous. Whereas in "A Catskill Eagle," characters are killed off as quickly as they're introduced, not once in "Taming a Sea-Horse" does detective Spenser even fire his gun.

Earlier, Spenser saved April from Boston's "Combat Zone" in the novel "Ceremony" by finding her safer, if not different, work in an expensive New York brothel run by Patricia Utley. Here the girls are fairly paid, regular medical checkups are standard and rarely are the girls abused by their customers. "She was going to be a whore, no matter what," Spenser says to Patricia. "That's why I sent her to you." But April doesn't seem to know a better situation from a worse one, for she's left Utley's stable to ply her trade for lover and pimp Robert Rambeaux, a part-time student at the Julliard School of Music. He's your flashy, well-dressed black pimp who exploits and beats his women, first jobbing them out to the fancy brothels, later working them off the street after they've become too "shopworn" for the wealthier clientele.

The action picks up when Spenser tails Rambeaux to Times Square, later questioning one of his working women, Ginger Buckey, a former high-class call girl. She, too, was once Rambeaux's lover. From her, Spenser learns a sad life story beginning with Ginger's child-molester father who sells her into prostitution, followed by career stints at various massage parlors and brothels--including the Tiger Lilies Escort Service, where April currently works--before she's finally turned out onto the street. Shortly after this conversation, Ginger is found murdered, Rambeaux gets a beating from his boss' heavies, and April suddenly vanishes.

"Taming a Sea-Horse" perhaps has less to do with locating the missing April than it does with tracing the lines of Ginger Buckey's professional career. Spenser believes that if he can figure out how Buckey became a hooker, and who she worked for, in the process, he'll connect with those responsible for April's disappearance. It's his only chance. Rambeaux and others associated with April are afraid to talk.

The game gets bigger as Spenser gets closer to his mark and, as a result, so do the stakes. In his investigations, he encounters some wealthy and powerful folks who would rather remain anonymous; who would rather Spenser mind his own business and not call attention to their own. Attempts on his life are soon made. For protection, Spenser recruits his sidekick, Hawk, seen in Parker's last novel, and together they battle one bad guy after another until they've cracked the case.

Parker's story is as simple, sharp and economical as his prose. There are few, if any, scenes that don't advance the plot, and yet the novel as a whole is formulaic in its construction and execution. Too often, chapters open with a room description followed by a character sketch and then a confrontation. Again and again, one plot complication leads predictably to another with a result that is equally predictable. And there is also much childish name-calling in the dialogue, too many racial slurs maybe made in jest but which tend to become offensive even if they aren't meant to be; even, if in defense, they can be attributed to characterization.

"Taming a Sea-Horse" is a better novel than Parker's last in that it is less sensational and possibly a more heartfelt work. But again, it is made of the stuff of a little boy's dreams too heavily influenced by too many prime-time cop shows.

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