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Storytellers: New in August

July 17, 1988|DON G. CAMPBELL

Mad dogs, Englishmen and, we suspect, a fair share of the writers of popular fiction, go out in the midday sun. And, from the heat of that midday, midsummer sun, comes some wondrously aberrant fictional behavior--romantically, psychologically and politically.

In Rich Men, Single Women, for instance, co-authors Pamela Beck and Patti Massman (they earlier wrote the best seller, "Fling") have come up with the sort of plot you would expect to find enclosed in a box of cereal: Three attractive young women attend a friend's wedding to a rich, attractive Beverly Hills bachelor and decide, "Hey! This is the life!"

All three desert friends and careers in other parts of the country and debark to Beverly Hills to emulate their friend--thanks to a handsome young man they meet at the wedding who lends them his Beverly Hills home, servants and cars for a year, while he mountain climbs around the globe. (Happens all the time in Beverly Hills). Enter an economics professor, a millionaire sports empire entrepreneur, assorted other males of various degrees of wealth and lots and lots of glandular activity.

Oddly enough, all three of our heroines--both in and out of bed--are likable. Dippy, but likable, and the only real danger to the reader here is in finding himself beginning to take any of this seriously. "Rich Men, Single Women" is a main selection of the Doubleday Book Club and an alternate selection of The Literary Guild.

But you haven't skimmed the surface of aberrant behavior until you've plunged into Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs. We immediately get suspicious of book promotions that use phrases like "blood-chilling," and "a book you'll read with the lights on." In this case, believe it.

Here we not only have a spectacularly grisly serial killer on the loose, but the best bet that Clarice Starling, an amazingly resourceful young FBI trainee, has in finding him is to cozy up to an earlier serial killer now imprisoned in a hospital for the criminally insane--a professor deemed so deadly that he is kept, almost literally, mummy-wrapped.

This Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection isn't for the squeamish, but if Starling's pursuit of Serial Killer "B" before he dispatches his latest victim doesn't raise goose bumps on you the size of Concord grapes, you need serious therapy.

Since this is the year of Soviet chic, we have already had a brace of summer novels built around the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917 (Carol J. Kane's "Blood and Sable" and Danielle Steel's "Zoya"). It's a shame that Emily Hanlon's gripping Petersburg--even though an alternate selection by both The Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club--has to trail the pack because it's so much more than an also-ran. This is an exciting, tightly plotted story of murder, heroism and treachery built around the Russian Revolution that failed, the movement that was crushed by the czar immediately following the abortive Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

And, unlike its predecessors this summer, "Petersburg" isn't built around the decaying czarist nobility, but around a social class that history has largely ignored: Russia's pre-revolution self-made, wealthy, capitalist entrepreneurs--still close enough to their peasant roots to be torn between their sympathies for the revolutionary movement, in which many of their children have become involved, and their loyalties to the czar. "Petersburg" is a brilliant historic study of a Russian culture in the throes of violent transition, when the fuse was sputtering but the explosion was still a decade away.

But it's a big season, too, for demented serial killers, and in Glory, author Jack Curtis has created a dandy--an Englishman recruited by an international political-economic conspiracy to carry out one simple, uncomplicated, murder of a bank teller who has stumbled on dangerous information.

Unfortunately, the killer discovers he loves this line of work, and the conspirators suddenly have a nut out of control on their hands and threatening to blow the cover on their global hanky-panky. Enter ex-cop, John Dean, an on-again-off-again alcoholic still mourning (his wife was killed in an auto accident) who must find the killer because his new love interest is next on his list.

This is a big notch above routine serial killer mysteries because there are genuine puzzlements in it as Dean digs into the case and discovers surprising things about his dead wife and his fellow cops, and because he keeps crossing paths with the shadowy killers dispatched by the conspirators who also want the killer removed.

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