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Bloody Sunday

September 18, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

After "Prizzi's Honor" and a prequel, "Prizzi's Family," Richard Condon concludes his trilogy with Prizzi's Glory, a sequel that takes us into years not yet born and into the higher reaches of respectability.

By now the Prizzis are unthinkably rich. Their holding company grosses nearly $17 billion annually, owns among other items 32 law firms, 137 hotels and 381 hospitals and has 9,208 senior executives, lawyers and accountants. It has respect but not respectability, for which Maerose (the Anjelica Huston character in the film) is aiming with a drive that has overwhelmed even the old Don himself.

Paving the road to respectability, Maerose takes husband Charlie Partana away from his killing chores and, against his better judgment, sees that he has a new name, face, voice and MO. When last seen, he is rushing up a veritable peak of propriety, uttering curses like "What in tunket!" and "Great Godfrey!"

Condon, as usual, wields a pen that is part scalpel, part Samurai sword. The legitimatizing of criminal money and the illegitimizing of the higher (and lower) reaches of government are equal themes.

"Prizzi's Glory" is with all else a hymn book in favor of Italian cooking. Too, it is also a satirical litany of the trappings of success. It is not kind to the incumbent Administration or televised religion, but it does celebrate family togetherness. Condon's powers of invention and expression and his gift for the credibly preposterous are undiminished.

T. Jefferson Parker follows his "Laguna Heat" with Little Saigon, a thriller set amid the Vietnamese refugee community in Orange County, which Parker appears to know with remarkable intimacy.

His protagonist, Chuck Frye, is a sometime journalist, the outcast son of a powerful developer. The kidnaping of his brother's Vietnamese wife sets off a convoluted plot with links to the Saigon that was and the Hanoi that is. The double-dealings and the final bloody confrontations are larger than life but the power of the story is in Parker's acute and palpable rendering of Little Saigon itself. He is a potent and irresistible writer.

Simon Brett and his London actor-sleuth Charles Paris would seem to have a lock on the theatrical mystery, but not so. Jane Dentinger's Jocelyn (Josh) O'Roarke is a New York stage director making her third appearance in Death Mask.

O'Roarke is not as witty and self-deprecating as the hard- drinking Paris. But she is equally insecure, though also tough-minded, ambitious, aggressive and obviously very, very good at her work.

Dentinger, a former actress who now runs Murder Ink, a New York mystery bookshop, knows the theater well. O'Roarke is here directing a revival of Shaw's "Major Barbara" to save an imperiled theater. It is exciting to watch O'Roarke pull the production together from casting and first reading to opening night. You know the author has been there.

But somebody would seem to prefer a quick closing this time. A supporting actor dies; there are curious near-misses and a whole set of cross-purposes plot to prise out.

Actually the author takes the theater more seriously than Brett does, substituting passion for playfulness. But among Dentinger's admirers, now including me, is Brett himself, who allows Charles Paris to send a congratulatory opening night wire to O'Roarke.

The Gogol, or Lower Depths, school of contemporary crime writing has no more knowledgeable member than Andrew Vachss, whose third thriller, Blue Belle, runs through Manhattan's underbelly like Con Edison conduits.

His hard-bitten, ex-jailbird hero, Burke, is the toughest-talking first-person narrator since Mike Hammer, although he has considerably more specific gravity. With his bizarre team of helpers, an elderly Chinese restaurateur, a precociously larcenous child, a mute, an electronics whiz and, this time, the large, troubled, sexy lady of the title, Burke seems a spiritual descent of pulp figures like The Shadow and Doc Savage. They, too, could both call on curious pals.

A mysterious gray van is bumping off young prostitutes and kidnaping others. Burke tangles with a sibilant super killer who is somehow tied to the van.

"Blue Belle" is a kind of sex-enriched sewer fantasy, lower and larger than life. You may hate yourself in the morning, but you are not likely to stop reading, because Vachss can write.

But some fantasies are more fantastical than others. Radio Blues is about identical twin sisters, one good, one rotten, one successful, one not very, one alive, one presumably dead by decapitation. It is from first to last unbelievable (then again many thrillers are when subjected to cold light). The trouble here is that Gloria Nagy, through her first-person narrator, one of the sisters, skates over presumably grisly, ghastly and mournful events with the same blithe indifference and minor amusement you might use to describe the spilling of a bottle of maraschino cherries at a cocktail party. It is enough to give hilarious a bad name.

PRIZZI'S GLORY by Richard Condon (E.P. Dutton: $17.95; 256 pp.) LITTLE SAIGON by T. Jefferson Parker (St. Martin's Press: $18.95; 355 pp.) DEATH MASK by Jane Dentinger (Scribners: $16.95; 290 pp.) BLUE BELLE by Andrew Vachss (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95; 335 pp.) RADIO BLUES by Gloria Nagy (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 288 pp.)

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