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CRITIC AT LARGE

To Miss Author Burns' Whodunits Is A Crime

July 24, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Despite the tens of thousands of mysteries that have been written subsequent to Edgar Allan Poe, compulsive consumers of the form are forever running out of supplies and being forever in search of new authors, new titles.

The tangy blend of delight and relief when you discover a new voice is all the greater when the author has in fact been around for a while so there is a back list of books to consume, like Christmas candy, with indecent speed.

Margery Allingham had been writing for 30 years when I belatedly caught up with her, and the search for her earliest stories became its own kind of detection. I'm not quite so slow catching up on Rex Burns, although I don't know how I missed him earlier. (I hear the aficionados crying, "Where you been , pal?") I see there are six Gabe Wager mysteries prior to "Ground Money," which has just been published (Viking: $15.95, 250 pages).

Burns does for Denver and the Rocky Mountain West what Tony Hillerman does for the Native American Southwest, Ed McBain for Manhattan, what Ross Macdonald did for the Pacific littoral.

Burns is a reporter-novelist. Rodeo is at the heart of "Ground Money" (a term for the pay would-be contestants get for working the rodeo complex). Burns knows his way around the sport. There is also a long and thrilling account of a white-water rafting trip that is a first-rate piece of narrative writing, and it is the more refreshing after the sedate parlor palaver of many traditional mysteries.

Gabe Wager is a Denver homicide detective, sought out this time by an old Latino friend, Sanchez, a rodeo hand now buying horses for a rodeo entrepreneur. The old man, worried about his two boys who are now rodeo riders themselves, turns up dead.

It's beyond Wager's jurisdiction, and the locals don't see it as murder. But he can't let it go. He and Jo, the woman in his life, who's also a police officer, take a mountain vacation on a spread conveniently near the remote ranch where the sullen sons work.

Characters large and small (a ranch cook, a rodeo secretary) are vividly, economically sketched. The relationship between Wager and Jo has the dimensions and the texture of "serious" work, although the distinction between crime-writing and the straight novel grows dimmer than ever in a book as carefully observed as "Ground Money."

Burns comments on crime-writing as one of the contributors to another excellent and provocative new work, "Colloquium on Crime," edited by Robin W. Winks (Scribner's: $15.95, 216 pages). Winks, a history professor at Yale, is also a leading (and sympathetic) authority on mysteries. Formerly the mystery columnist for the New Republic, he currently reviews 70 titles a year for the Boston Globe. His earlier work, "Modus Operandi" (Godine: 1982), states an urbane and thoughtful case for the form.

For "Colloquium," Winks solicited essays (directed to a specific series of inquiries) from 11 mysterians, including the elusive and pseudonymous K. C. Constantine, Robert B. Parker and Joseph Hansen of Los Angeles, whose gay protagonist, insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter, represents a successful break with the detective tradition.

Burns' article, one of the best in the collection, sees the police procedural as a novel of manners, though one drawn from "the rough edge of social conflict," where the police work. The fictional detective, says Burns, "is the agent by which to explore this darker side of our American experience--perhaps the darker side of our individual psyches as well."

The real-life detective only needs to solve; the fictional cop has to discover and explain the why, if he can. The explanation may lie only in the good old basics of greed, envy and hatred. But the motivations may lie deeper, as Burns notes: in self-contempt (Graham Greene characters), in spiritual starvation (Dostoevsky).

Like all the private eyes, Gabe Wager is a loner. To accentuate his isolation, Burns says, he made Wager part-Latino, part-Anglo (it's Gabriel Villanueva Wager), fully at home in neither world, in a Western society where the two worlds are close but uneasy with each other, anyway.

Like Burns himself, Wager is an ex-Marine. And while Wager doesn't talk politics, it is quite clear that he and Burns are both small-c conservatives, impatient with politicians. If the form itself is small-c conservative (and Burns makes a case for it), it is in the larger sphere of morality rather than of politics.

"Detective stories assert the superiority of such things as honesty, goodness, humanness, courage, over such things as lying, evil, cruelty, cowardice," Burns writes in his essay. "In this way, the detective story tries to conserve universal human values, an effort that most political groups soon find to be embarrassing and impractical. . . . It seems to me that the American fictional detective tends to eschew politics for a personal moral stance that supports human values that have not and will not change."

In one of the earlier books, Gabe Wager says, "There were cops with pride--men with pride--who tried not to play games with their lives, or anyone else's."

It is, that is, not only the private eyes who walk mean streets as knights in a garish light.

Wager, humorless and not excessively larger than life, is a rewarding new acquaintance, and Rex Burns is a fine writer, to be discovered better late than never.

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