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Bloody Sunday

Favorite Son Wins Handily

December 06, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Steve Sohmer, who published short stories before he became a network promotion executive and film producer, has in Favorite Son written a superior thriller: fast, characterful, intricate, surprising and sardonic.

The time is August, 1988, just before one of the presidential nominating conventions. A Contra leader is being welcomed to Washington by an attractive, young Texas senator, Terry Fallon. The leader is assassinated. Fallon, by his side, is wounded but his show of courage makes him an instant dark-horse candidate for vice president. Polls show that the incumbent president, Sam Baker (elected, thanks to the licenses of fiction, in 1984), will likely lose unless he dumps his vice president.

Fallon's press aide, pretty Sally Crain, neatly manipulates the highly competitive network news departments to get him maximum exposure. The intrigue whips along as by cinematic jump cuts. Who was the assassin and why aren't the CIA and the FBI more eager to learn? What is Fallon really like? The FBI man heading the investigation, a cynical old veteran who seems like a failed Columbo, apparently got the assignment because he looks incapable of locating a haystack, let alone the needle.

Sohmer knows his way around television, politics, Washington and suspense fiction. The pace stays at the gallop, the dialogue is credibly urgent and events build to a grand Grand Guignol finish. Ludlum & Co. have a new neighbor.

Jackie Hyman, who lives in La Habra, makes an efficient and readable debut with The Eyes of a Stranger. Set in Orange County, it centers on a clairvoyant who once led the police to the body of a murdered girl and is now curiously well informed about the death of a second girl and the disappearance of a third. Hyman's heroine is Diane Hanson, a reporter who is trying to check out the seer's dubious past and present.

The author brings off an adroit and surprising but acceptable switch, creates a good sense of place and character and generates an impressive amount of suspense.

The days in detective fiction when even the evil was somehow homey and almost sanitary seem long gone. The Brooklyn of Thomas Boyle's Post-Mortem Effects is a gritty stew of racial tensions, drug dealing, the abrasions of affluence against poverty and the occasional wandering psychopath (a child-killer this time).

The book is essentially a police procedural, although Boyle's star, Francis DeSales, is curiously uninteresting at first acquaintance. But the dark authenticity with which Boyle presents his milieu with its conflicting fanaticisms overrides, narrowly, the ugliness of the goings-on.

George Baxt has found a genre within a genre--the celebrity murder story in which real historical figures commune with the author's inventions. Dorothy Parker, Alfred Hitchcock and now Tallulah Bankhead are his titular stars. The blacklist, which afflicted stage, television and radio as well as screen, is the backdrop for The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case. It is the time of Tallulah's "The Big Show" on radio. Friendly witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee are being bumped off, presumably by those whose lives they have ruined. Tallulah, drinking and quipping like mad, is at the center of things.

Baxt knows his show business history and scatters names and lines like an anthologist in a stiff breeze. But the effect is only mildly amusing and totally uninvolving. Some of the characterizations, as of film comedienne Patsy Kelly as a sponging drunk, are actively unkind.

Inspector Ghote of Bombay CID makes his 17th appearance in The Body in the Billiard Room, in which Ghote is called to a distant hill station to solve the murder of a servant at what is left of the Raj-era officers' club.

The charm of the piece is that Ghote has been commanded to the site by an ex-ambassador who is a detective fiction zealot and talks constantly of Holmes and Poirot and other Great Detectives (whom the uncomfortable Ghote has never read about). Ghote, certain that what he is certainly not is a Great Detective, nevertheless solves a mystery, tidily, and Keating has some affectionate fun about the form. He is one of the surviving practitioners of the classically plotted and developed mystery, unusually enriched by Keating's command of the sights and sounds of India.

James Kahn, who is an emergency room surgeon in Los Angeles, uses his life experience, as Dr. Michael Crichton has, to lend some convincing detail to what would otherwise seem wholly fanciful concoctions. In The Echo Vector, his protagonist, Dr. Jordan Marks (an emergency room surgeon), notes a strange upsurge in fatal nosebleeds.

His persistent proddings lead him to a government germ-warfare experiment gone awry, to a killer whose object is to make viral death appear to be murder by stabbing. It is all finally a little too far out to be taken seriously even by those most paranoid about covert government, although Kahn tells an exciting, you-are-almost-there tale.

FAVORITE SON by Steve Sohmer (Bantam: $18.95; 484 pp.) THE EYES OF A STRANGER by Jackie Hyman (St. Martin's Press: $17.95, 298 pp.) POST-MORTEM EFFECTS by Thomas Boyle (Viking: $15.95, 248 pp.) THE TALLULAH BANKHEAD MURDER CASE by George Baxt (St. Martin's Press: $15.95, 240 pp.) THE ECHO VECTOR by James Kahn (St. Martin's Press: $15.95, 240 pp.)

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