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Robicheaux on the Bayou, Maigret on the Riviera

April 10, 1988|by CHARLES CHAMPLIN

HEAVEN'S PRISONERS by James Lee Burke (Henry Holt: $17.95; 292 pp.) MAIGRET ON THE RIVIERA by Georges Simenon, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; 123 pp.) THE WAY WE DIE NOW by Charles Willeford (Random House: $15.95; 245 pp.) THE CROSS-KILLER by Marcel Montecino (Arbor House/Morrow: $18.95; 488 pp.) BERTIE AND THE TINMAN by Peter Lovesey (Mysterious Press: $15.95; 212 pp.) NOSTALGIA KILLS by Robert Westbrook (Crown Publishing: $17.95; 283 pp.) A MASCULINE ENDING by Joan Smith (Scribner's: $15.95; 186 pp.)

In last year's "The Neon Rain," James Lee Burke, who teaches creative writing at Wichita State, proved himself a prose stylist to be reckoned with. He caught steamy New Orleans and cold-eyed Hollywood with equal fidelity.

His dialogue sounds true as a tape-recording; his writing about action is strong and economical. But his hero, Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam vet, a New Orleans homicide detective and a recovering alcoholic, has the soul of a poet-philosopher beneath the scar tissue.

The duality lets Burke mix hard-line action and terse dialogue (which puts him in a class alongside Elmore Leonard) with lyrical evocations of the bayou country and explorations of the deepest feelings of anger, revenge, love, compassion and understanding.

Burke is an important new writer. Popular recognition often comes slowly, as it did to Leonard, but his is a name to watch. In Heaven's Prisoners, Robicheaux has this time quit the force and is running a bait and boat shop in the bayous. (Burke grew up on the Gulf Coast, and his feeling for the territory is palpable.) He sees a light plane crash in the swampy waters and rescues a Latina child, but the adults are dead. It's mysterious from the start. Immigration officials understate the body count by one in the news releases, and the narcotics men know more than they'll tell him. Robicheaux is warned off by officials and thugs alike and severely beaten when he keeps prying.

Burke creates a whole cargo of characters, vivid and distinctive, and a great deal of hard action: nasties and decent men, loyal women and lethal ladies. One of the bad men is a good old boy he grew up with, now rich and mean. Balancing all the corruption is an abiding faith (Robicheaux's and, so you sense, the author's) in the redeeming, enduring power of love.

Georges Simenon stopped writing several years ago, but he wrote so much in his prime that his novels are still finding their way into English. Maigret on the Riviera was written in 1940.

It is a mystery only in the broadest sense. Jules Maigret has been sent to Cap d'Antibes to investigate the murder of an eccentric Australian, black sheep of an importantly connected family. He's been living with two women, his mistress and her mother, but spending a lot of hard-drinking time at a seedy basement bar in the village. Who stabbed him and left him in the shrubbery at his own door? It hardly matters. Discovering the dead man's inner self and his life story is the business of Simenon's little book, which is hardly long enough to qualify as a novella. Maigret, drinking a lot himself and perspiring in his Paris clothes, is at his perceptive best, sighing at the comedie humaine.

Charles Willeford, who died only a few days ago at 69, was a skilled veteran just beginning to be appreciated fully. In The Way We Die Now, his protagonist, Sgt. Hoke Moseley of the Miami Police Department, is almost a cliche: the nearly burnt-out cop with a broken marriage behind him and a future as bleak as a November twilight. His ex, who ran off with a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers, has dumped their daughters on him to raise.

He is an aging maverick not much admired by the brass, and he gets all the lousy details, none worse than posing as a migrant worker to see why so many Haitian illegals are disappearing. (Willeford provided a grand pyrotechnical finish to that assignment.) Moseley uses some guileful charm to unmask a murderer; his sympathetic company. Willeford's intimate command of the sights, sounds, geography and ethnic tensions of Miami and South Florida forestalls any worries about Moseley being a type instead of an individual. He's who Willeford says he is, and he and the author were right at home.

The burnt-out cop surfaces again, just as readably, in a first novel by Marcel Montecino. In The Cross-Killer, Jack Gold drinks far too much, lives in a one-bedroom slum, is hated by his ex-wife and estranged from his married daughter and hangs on to his career by his broken fingernails. A black mistress who was on drugs killed herself, and Gold wears guilt like a non-stop migraine. He despises the chief of police and it's mutual.

The setting is Los Angeles (being pressed hard by New Orleans and Miami as a favored setting for police and private-eye fiction). Gold is Jewish, an obvious choice to look into a chain of anti-Semitic vandalizings and killings.

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