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FICTION : AN INFINITE NUMBER OF MONKEYS by Les Roberts (St. Martin's: $12.95; 165 pp.).

August 09, 1987|John Espey

The potential victim in this elegantly constructed winner of the "Best First Private Eye Novel" contest is Buck Weldon, creator of a he-man investigator, Bart Steele. The best-selling volumes of Steele's adventures have made Weldon wealthy. He lives in the San Fernando Valley and enjoys connections with the film world. Through an instance of mistaken identity, a series of murders is triggered, and one of Buck's daughters hires her own detective, Saxon, to keep an eye on her father.

Weldon's library includes "the complete works of Hammett and Chandler, most of Ross McDonald, Bill Pronzini, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Jack V. Kale, John O'Hara, and several books by and about Presidents Kennedy, Truman and Theodore Roosevelt." By his own verbal alchemy, Les Roberts has succeeded in carrying over the aura represented by these names into the current reality that David Freeman's "A Hollywood Education" has mapped. Saxon even speaks of "whaling the kapok" out of someone where an old-fashioned academician would still use a different phrase.

Roberts keeps faith with the conventions of the various traditions that he melds. Saxon is captivated by Tori Weldon's eyes, "unbelievable green with an iridescent blue undercast." Tori's sister is a nymphomaniac. Saxon, outwardly the hard-boiled tough guy, is a credibly sensitive human being.

Buck insists that he has no enemies, but Saxon finds several persons with reasons to hate him, including Tori's ex-husband, a drug-dealer shacked up with Valerie, a prominent producer caught in a scandal; even, perhaps, Buck's agent and his publisher. Pretty much of a loner, Buck has a few cronies, among them, to my delight, a UCLA professor whose original I suspect I know.

The only way I can hit upon to cue in the reader on the solution without giving away the identity of the murderer is to say that Roberts addresses one of Henry James' favorite themes with a skillful use of reverse English. Mr. James would, I suspect, be amused.

We may be witnessing here in P. I. (No First Name) Saxon the birth of a worthy successor to Weldon's heroes. After a little amateur sleuthing, I am happy to report that "An Infinite Number of Monkeys" is no solo venture. My (necessarily anonymous) informants tell me that Saxon will return in February with his second case, "Not Enough Horses," and he is still, I gather, using Les Roberts' borrowed word-processor.

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