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Bloody Sunday

July 10, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Four old reliables lead the July list, with varying degrees of reliability.

The ferociously prolific Ed McBain, who by my count has so far written 28 of the 87th Precinct novels, is also extending another series, about a middle-age Florida lawyer named Matthew Hope. The House That Jack Built (they are all named for nursery rhymes) is the eighth of the Hope stories.

McBain's frenetic style can be off-putting.

One-line paragraphs.

Two words.

One.

Pace-setting.

Page-consuming.

But McBain is first and finally a storyteller, and when he sets his tale to wagging, he commands close attention. This time a solid, stolid Midwest farmer comes to Calusa to visit the brother whose gay life style he has been reluctantly financing. There is a loud quarrel; the gay brother is killed, and the visiting brother becomes the principal suspect and Hope's client.

There prove to be extortionists in the picture, a pregnant waif who claims to be the abandoned child of the superrich local brewery family, reports of a figure in black fleeing the murder house in the rainy night. At last there is a startlingly different shoot-out amidst the bubbling vats of the brewery.

McBain's telegraphic style gives his story a hard, reportorial surface. Characters are caught in a few memorable strokes; things happen economically. What is surprising in such terse circumstances is how much you have felt, or have been led to understand that the characters were feeling. His portrait of the gay life is not flattering, although his straights are not so wonderful either.

He has written at least 18 other non-series novels under the McBain name and "Strangers When We Meet" as Evan Hunter. Amazing.

Since "The Anderson Tapes" nearly 20 years ago, Lawrence Sanders has been prolific himself, averaging a book a year (19 to date) and working his way through the deadly sins and several of the livelier commandments. Now he has a series character in Timothy Cone, a rumpled and untidy financial investigator for a firm that specializes in the discreet probing of Wall Street mischiefs.

"The Timothy Files" was his previous outing. Now, in Timothy's Game, Cone is the link between two unrelated capers, one involving insider trading by Mafia types, the other an attempt by outsiders to muscle in on a small but prosperous Chinese food company run by an adroit and wily old Chinese gentleman who also has an adulterous wife and a treasonable son to worry about.

Cone, who on paper suggests Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil," is an example of the currently popular breed of crime protagonist, slovenly but smart, who improbably commands the love of a terrific dame and just as improbably gets the job done.

Sanders is a pro who does his research to make the milieu interesting in its own terms, as the Wall Street stuff is, and who makes the talk and the action continuous, even in the two discontinuous adventures here.

Crimson Joy is the 15th of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, and there are signs of fatigue, or of the formula elements becoming a kind of well-padded straitjacket. The good sex with Susan and the good food with everybody or nobody have begun to draw attention to the banality of the surrounding material.

Somebody has been killing black women and leaving a rose as a trade mark. It may be a cop, which is why Spenser is brought in by the police to be a disinterested sleuth. The killer may also be a client of psychiatrist Susan, which generates suspense and the final excitements.

But the serial killer as a fictional ploy has, it is tempting to say, been done to death, especially when he seems as much a mother-hating stereotype as this one.

Julian Symons is a venerable British historian of crime fiction who has himself written some fine and intricate mysteries, including "The Plot Against Roger Rider" and "The Man Who Killed Himself." The Kentish Manor Murders, his new one, takes its title from what purports to be a lately discovered, unfinished Sherlock Holmes novel in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own handwriting.

Symons' character, an actor named Sheridan Haynes famed for his portrayals of Holmes (but not apparently for much else), is hired to give a one-man show for a one-man audience, an eccentric American millionaire and Holmes collector who lives in what he calls Castle Baskerville on the moors. Haynes becomes a skeptical and reluctant link between the ailing collector and the dubious European type who is peddling the manuscript.

Haynes is always sure that the manuscript is a forgery, if only because Sir Arthur never used the word "murder" in a title. Unfortunately, the entire proceeding is so forced and artificial and Symons' light-hearted attempts to meld Holmes and Eric Ambler (or Graham Greene) so unavailing that the story's major action, crammed into the last handful of pages, arrives a bit too late to save the day. Disappointing, my dear Watson.

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