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Bloody Sunday

Ross Thomas Goes to Manila

October 04, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The most urbane and witty of the American thriller/espionage novelists, Ross Thomas, is spang on top of the news in Out on the Rim.

Booth Stallings, a cynical and shop-soiled Former Agency Man, is now making the odd buck as an expert on terrorism. He is recruited for a scam centering on $5 million which American conservatives want to give a Communist guerrilla in the Philippines to finance an anti-Aquino coup. The rightists' reasoning is that the coup will fail but weaken the Aquino government and ease the way for Marcos to return in triumph. The guerrilla is a resistance leader Stallings fought beside in World War II.

The chief plotter is a steely beauty named Georgia Blue and the supportive villains, each eager to grab the $5 million, are innumerable and vivid. As always, the Thomas command of settings, atmosphere, surprise, characterization and tasty dialogue is wonderfully authoritative.

Still, "Out on the Rim" seems less satisfying than some of Thomas's earlier works. Stallings is a fairly inert central figure, and it is as if his world-weariness were contagious. All the dizzying double-crosses and intricate counter-betrayals themselves begin to feel as ritualized as a minuet, even if it is being danced in an unusually urgent context.

Ruth Rendell has become a phenomenon, ever more prolific. Talking to Strange Men is her second full-length novel this year. (As Barbara Vine, she did the ingeniously structured "A Fatal Inversion," and as Rendell, she published a spooky novella, "Heartstones.") But, far from showing signs of strain from over-production, she grows bolder in her undertakings.

In "Talking to Strange Men," two plot lines move toward a fateful intersection. Some precocious prep school boys (nicely sketched) play at being spies, with code names like Leviathan and coded messages left at drops in their provincial city.

A neurotic young man, lately deserted by his wife, intercepts one of the messages, decodes it and imagines he is on to a gang of adult criminals. He drops his own message among the boys, with lethal consequences.

Rendell gets inside psychologically aberrant characters as well as anyone now writing crime fiction. Readers who like more traditional chills are in fact occasionally put off by the kinkiness on which some of her stories turn.

But, like the best performers in the field, including P. D. James, Rendell blurs the line between genre and straight writing. She records the life styles that run south from the middle class with a microscopic accuracy that is saved from being merciless by a touch of humor, and the contemporary England she portrays can be seen and felt.

John Lutz created in "Tropical Heat" a gimpy ex-cop named Carver who turns private eye after a crook's bullet shattered his knee. In his second caper, Scorchers, he is after a killer who uses a flame-thrower, one of whose victims is Carver's own son.

There's an early prime suspect, and Carver is out not for justice but revenge. But the story is predictably unpredictable, and revenge, taken hot or cold, is never as sweet as promised. The locale is Orlando and environs, the weather steamy, the procedures and the talk somehow all very familiar. Yet the note of compassion and the feeling for family that Ross Macdonald brought to the private eye informs Lutz's work, too, and is welcome.

Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), who died in 1983, is himself represented among the month's best offerings by a new edition of Blue City, first published in 1947 and long out of print in hard-cover.

"Blue City" was Macdonald's second novel, written in 1946 when he was not long back from Navy duty, finishing his Ph.D. and aiming to be a writer. His Lew Archer was three years off, but in "Blue City" (recently an unsuccessful film), there were prefigurings of what became Macdonald's major themes: the tough but compassionate solitary hero, present crime with tangled roots reaching deep in the past, the corruptions of wealth and power, the search for the father and the centrality of the family.

Johnny Weathers, just out of the Army, comes back to his corrupt home city to find that his influential father is dead (an unsolved murder). There is a dubious stepmother he never knew he had, and a climate of violence in which he is quickly embroiled. Robert B. Parker, provides an affectionate introduction on Macdonald's achievements and influence.

Another early work being reprinted in the light of later successes is Ken Follett's Paper Money, written in 1976 before "The Eye of the Needle" and his other best-sellers, published under the pseudonym Zachary Stone.

It is a slim, cleverly plotted, cynical book with no central figure (which may be why it never sold well, Follett says in a preface). There are instead several characters presented in an alternating sequence of swift vignettes: an MP, an eager-beaver reporter, a corrupt financier, criminals very dumb and very smart and ruthless, assorted call girls and editors.

His idea, Follett says, was to show "how crime, high finance and journalism are corruptly interconnected." He admits he is not as sure of the connection now as he was when he wrote it, but he rightly argues that his picture of London in the '70s, swinging ever more feverishly, is still accurate.

OUT ON THE RIM

by Ross Thomas

(The Mysterious Press: $17.95; 314 pp.) TALKING TO STRANGE MEN

by Ruth Rendell

(Pantheon: $16.95; 280 pp.) SCORCHER

by John Lutz

(Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $16.95; 259 pp.) PAPER MONEY

by Ken Follett

(Morrow: $15.95; 216 pp.) BLUE CITY

by Ross Macdonald; introduction by Robert B. Parker

(Hill & Co., $9.95, 231 pp.)

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