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BLOODY SUNDAY

A Bushel of Thrillers

May 08, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The bedside stack this month is divided among old reliables being reliable and new or relatively new voices well worth noting for present and future reference.

One of the newer voices belongs to Neal Stephenson, an Iowan who has lived in New England and now writes in Seattle. Zodiac, subtitled "The Eco-Thriller," is Stephenson's second novel ("The Big U" was the first).

His scene is Boston, where the harbor is being polluted into a puddle of poison. His untidy hero is Sangamon Taylor, an environmental activist whose pals call him "a granola James Bond" and who wears a wet suit instead of a trench coat.

It's the most energetic thriller in recent months--quantities of action, much of it in or under water, along with great dollops of bacterial science, all of it scary, and an abrasive central figure whose enemies regard him as an ecological terrorist.

Taylor shares the turf, so to speak, with Robert Parker's Spenser. It is the lesser side of Greater Boston--but without the cuisine, and with a raging anger about the corporate polluters. The anger reads like more than a merely literary ploy, and Stevenson's book is an impolite pleasure.

Among old reliables, Donald E. Westlake is year-in and year-out the funniest of the American mysterians. The strain of comic invention occasionally has shown as drops of blood on Westlake's forehead, but more often, he gives his outrageous criminal fancies a life of their own.

There is a mystery in Trust Me on This. A young woman en route to a new job on a Florida publication finds a body at the roadside. It disappears and Security seems not to have reported it to the local cops.

The plot thickens, as they will, but the mystery this time is quite incidental to Westlake's raucous and withering satire on the publication, one of those check-out-stand weekly tabloids that keep you posted on two-headed babies, star adulteries and killer roaches invading Bel-Air. (I saw a recent headline that said BABY BORN WEARING EGYPTIAN RING. Even Westlake might pause at inventing that.)

The real plot is about the workings of Weekly Galaxy, and the fall from journalistic grace of Sara Joslyn, who quickly succumbs to the pressure to produce and who as her initiation rite fakes a birthday party for 100-year-old twins, using an imposter after one of the twins has died untimely.

Westlake's great centerpiece is the tabloid's all-out effort--helicopters, mounted reporters, wholesale bribery and relentless deceptions--to steal exclusive coverage on the wedding of a defiantly uncooperative television star.

"There is no newspaper anywhere in the United States like the Weekly Galaxy," Westlake writes in a note, but the wink must have been so extravagant that you could hear it. Does Sara repent? Not hardly.

Gerald Petievich, a longtime treasury agent based in Southern California, turned writer to produce "To Live and Die in L.A." and other well-informed and atmospheric crime stories, initially involving the counterfeiters he chased on a daily basis.

In Shakedown (unrelated to a forthcoming film of the same title), Petievich's prevailing motif is corruption along the Las Vegas-Los Angeles axis. His protagonist, John Novak, is an honest FBI agent who feels surrounded and thwarted by bureaucratic fools. He has a vice lord in his sights, and one of the big man's attendants is Eddie Sands, an ex-cop now specializing in extortion. (Petievich invents some wicked ploys for him).

There are hoods large and small, a moll and a sexy federal judge. It is all fast, all cynical, all satisfying. Petievich grows better and more inventive right along.

K. C. Constantine, the pseudonym of a Pennsylvania newspaperman, ranks with Albuquerque's Tony Hillerman and Denver's Rex Burns as the best of the regional crime novelists. Constantine's half-Hungarian, half-Italian police chief, Mario Balzic, is one of the most authentic creations in all of crime fiction, and his small city is so real you could map it.

Joey's Case is the eighth Balzic novel, and of them all, it has the least to do with the crime, the most to do with Balzic himself.

He's asked by the defendant's family to reinvestigate a murder case that was badly botched by an officer from another jurisdiction. Balzic does his work, treading gingerly because he has no real authority. It's a messy case, a love triangle that involved three unlovely people and ended in gunfire.

But Balzic has a tougher, more personal problem distracting him and driving him crazy. He has suddenly become impotent, and he can't cope with it; can't face his wife or his mother; can't find consolation in drink although he tries. He sleeps in an empty cell to avoid going home.

It is admittedly curious material for the mystery form, handled not even for wry and affectionate laughs but to reveal a man's anguish in the face of a demoralizing personal mystery.

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