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Puss in Boots by Ed McBain (Holt: $15.95; 248 pp.)

July 26, 1987|Skip Cooley Pedigo | Pedigo is a former magazine editor who is currently an owner/partner in a Newport Beach public relations agency

When is a fairy tale not a fairy tale? When it's a throat-tightening, skin-crawling Ed McBain excursion through the world of independent porno production and murder.

The seventh in a series of Matthew Hope novels with titles incongruously taken from familiar children's stories, "Puss in Boots" is set in Calusa, Fla., where attorney Hope, determined to make a success of his recent switch to criminal law, is badly in need of a case.

Summoned to defend Carlton Barnaby Markham, the husband of prim and proper murder victim Prudence Ann Markham, Hope soon finds himself embroiled in a world of magnificently endowed porno stars, well-fed alligators, fun-in-the-sun party girls, missing X-rated film and one of the most deranged, diabolical murderers ever to slash and stab his way into a fictional detective novel.

Working late one windy November night at a rented studio, carefully editing the film footage she has directed, Prudence Ann thinks she hears noises. Attributing them to the scraping and blowing of palm fronds, she completes her work, packs up her film, walks out the door, meticulously locking it and setting the security alarm. A knife-wielding killer awaits her.

A set of inexplicable events convinces the police that Carlton Markham lay in wait to kill his wife, and they promptly jail him.

Matthew Hope's investigation on behalf of Markham leads him to neighbors who swear they've seen Markham breaking into his own home and burying objects in his backyard in the dead of night. It doesn't help matters when Matthew learns that no one, including Markham, seems to know what film project Prudence Ann was working on when she died nor what happened to the film.

A film director of recognized ability, Prudence Ann's child-abuse documentary had won an award, and her TV commercials and teaching aids were widely acclaimed. Everyone agreed, however, that talented Prue was highly secretive and a tad paranoid, but what the heck, all artists are a little strange, right?

Throughout the book, we're given terrifying, strobelike glimpses of a beautiful redhead dressed only in high red boots in an isolated, dirt-floored shack. She fearfully answers to the name of Puss. Only at the end, when the reader can hardly turn the pages fast enough, is the significance of this bizarre scene revealed.

The prolific McBain, who was given the Grand Master award in 1986 by the Mystery Writers of America, and whose 87th Precinct police procedurals have hooked and reeled in a generation of detective novel readers, has a powerful way with words, conveying images that chill the blood, and the process starts with the first sentence he writes:

"She thought she heard a sound.

"She looked up sharply from the flatbed, listening.

"The palm fronds outside the studio rattled with a fierce November wind. A bird called inanely to the night."

That, boys and girls, is vintage McBain. Intriguing you from the first line, pulling you inexorably into this scary, seamy scenario.

"Puss in Boots" is a raunchy, fast-paced book to take on vacation or keep in your desk drawer to pull out and read on lunch hours or in bank lines, but be forewarned: It has a gripping, engrossing quality that may find you forgetting to eat your turkey on sourdough or obliviously holding up your queue at the cashier's window.

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