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Premise: A Sea Otter Shot in the Head : BOHANNON'S BOOK by Joseph Hansen (Foul Play Press: $16.95; 224 pp.; 0-88150-103-40)

July 17, 1988|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a Times staff writer who likes to read short stories but couldn't write one if it bit him on the Bohannon.

At least on those disposable TV shows there are faces to watch, some of them even interesting. Joseph Hansen provides no such relief.

Hansen's shortish stories, laid side by side like so many red herrings, are little more than print versions of an eternity of private-eye series, a resemblance of things past.

"Five Mysteries" the stories are euphemistically called, and they revolve about one central conundrum: Who cares? Hack Bohannon seems to, though even he is suspect.

Bohannon, 40, runs a horse ranch in west central California, just a little north of Cayucos. An ex-deputy sheriff, he has quit over an injustice (they always do). He retains a PI license, though, because people are always asking him to solve stuff. Well, that's what it says.

Working on the ranch, presumably paid to flesh out the prose, are Stubbs, a busted-up ex-rodeo rider, and Rivera, a divinity student. Bohannon's wife is institutionalized, the result of a botched-up chase off-camera. We know these things, and retain them, because they are repeated in each story. They are repeated because the stories appeared, separately, in various mystery magazines and haven't been re-edited.

It is lively in the vicinity of Bohannon's putatively halcyon spread. A girl, soundly thrashed, fetches up in a horse stall one night. (Bohannon finds the culprit.) A man drives a car off a nearby hill. (Bohannon finds out who tampered with the brakes.) A grave is dug and a newly wealthy youth is abducted. (Bohannon puts two and two together.) An ex-con's rich wife is murdered. (Naw, he didn't do it. Even Bohannon knows that .)

Finally, a sea otter is found on the beach, shot in the head. Now there's a premise! Only a promise, it turns out. This tale is as riddled with coincidence and instant, improbable solution as its cousins.

Through it all runs a dash of local color--Hansen knows his territory well--tempered by the suffusive smell of "timothy hay" (whatever that is) and "dried manure" ( that we know).

Not to mention a torrent of totally unnecessary words. TV series pad out the hour with car chases. Hansen, to stretch an O. Henry four-pager to 40, spells it all out.

Thus Gerard isn't content to just get out; he "worked the car door, opened it, jumped down, turned." Our horse-dung hero doesn't work any faster: "Bohannon poked into the ragged breast pocket of his old Levi jacket for a cigarette, lit the cigarette, pawed in the papers of Gerard's desk for an ashtray, dropped the kitchen match into it." (Even Mike Hammer simply "cracked a deck of Luckies and jammed one into my mouth.")

In "Bohannon's Way," moreover, are overtones--parodies?-- of bad Hemingway ("loosening the earth with the mattock, swinging it well and true"); good "Shane" ("There are things that happen to us that no one can help us with"); standard Spillane (the corpse's eyes and mouth "gave her a look of surprise. She wasn't surprised. Not anymore").

Like its visual counterparts, "Bohannon's" prose is scratchy, its plots skimpy, its personae sketchy.

A couple of nice turns of phrase, though.

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