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Bloody Sunday

October 09, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Witty, stylish, diverting, ingenious, tidy (that is, not blood-soaked), the mysteries of Robert Barnard are the very model of the English form. At Death's Door, his 17th, is one of the best.

Tended by his son and daughter-in-law, an ancient writer lies dying, dictating a succession of new wills to pass the time. An illegitimate daughter from a long-ago fling with an actress shows up to research a biography of her mother, now a rather grande dame. Mother shows up too, unpleasantly, and is bumped off.

There are several suspects (whenever weren't there?) and some amusing but not jolting surprises. The characters are vivid, the dialogue polished, the denouement clever, the whole effort as satisfyingly English as breakfast tea.

The gap in form and content between Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford police procedurals and her mordant studies of aberrant psychology appears to be narrowing.

Wexford and his headstrong young assistant, Mike Burden, are back in The Veiled One, which begins with the savage garroting of a middle-aged woman in a mall garage, almost under Wexford's nose. Exurban Kingsmarkham has never seemed quite such a snake pit of mean looniness, old and seething resentments and blackmail (nothing tidy here). Burden, at center stage this time, mercilessly badgers a psychologically fragile young man, provoking a tragedy but not a confession.

As always, Rendell sets herself very demanding tasks: The characterizations of the pathetic young man, his wretched mother and various neighbors owe more to Dostoevsky than to Dashiell Hammett. The resolution is ingenious in the way of all good mysteries, but Rendell's work once again pushes beyond the comforting limits of escapist fare. She keeps getting better.

Crime literature would collapse without the ex-cop turned private eye, and Bruce Cook, a Los Angeles journalist, has invented another, a Mexican-American named Antonio (Chico) Cervantes, ex-Los Angeles police officer, in his Mexican Standoff.

His ethnic duality--he likes both Scotch and Cuervo Gold--lands him a caper, investigating a suspicious freeway fatality involving a Latino driver and a disappearing hearse. The skid marks lead to an opium farm high in the Mexican mountains and to a lot of heavy action.

Cook hasn't yet found a consistent voice for Cervantes, a first-person narrator like most private eyes. He is one moment subliterate ("Me and my partner was. . . .") and at the next, remembering that the girl was "instantly, urgently serious," as if she'd been reading Hemingway. The whole story is by now familiar in feeling and setting, although when Cook gets his narrative going, it acquires a welcome momentum, and the plot is lightly spiced with irony.

James Ellroy has made a speciality of fictionalizing Los Angeles crime of the '40s and '50s. "The Black Dahlia" dealt with a famous murder (also reflected in John Gregory Dunne's "True Confessions"). Now Ellroy moves to the '50s with his The Big Nowhere. Mickey Cohen, Jack Dragna and Johnny Stompanato as well as other real-life figures not only appear but play important roles, as in a docudrama. It is a time of Red-baiting, queer-bashing and deal-cutting, these and other hallmarks of an overgrown small city not yet beyond the last stages of its wide-open and scandalous past.

This long, ambitious work is a tumult of gaudy energy, thick with figures and incessant action. Dialogue and narrative are indistinguishably raw and colloquial. The trouble is that Ellroy's side-of-the-mouth, tough-guy, pulpy prose is so extreme as to approach parody and to make the whole thing read like a verbal comic book. The attempts at verisimilitude finally defeat it.

Stephen Solomita is or has been a New York cabbie and A Twist of the Knife really knows the city, all the boroughs, the heights and especially the gritty depths. A tough old cop gets on the trail of a five-person private terrorist army, which notably includes a psychotic killer nicknamed Zorba the Creep (whose thought processes are intriguingly sketched by Solomita).

Sgt. Moodrow's pursuit becomes a crusade when his lady is killed in one of the army's bombings. The plot builds to a terrific confrontation (the movie rights have already been sold), and Solomita has not one but several twists in mind.

Dennis Potter's miniseries, The Singing Detective, was one of the gems of recent television, an astonishing meld of memory, fantasy and reality occurring in the mind of a failed detective writer hospitalized with acute psoriasis. The just-published script, though it could have been better designed to set off the dialogue from the descriptive matter, is an invaluable document. It is a reminder that television can generate its own literature, and of a high order, when it wants to.

AT DEATH'S DOOR

by Robert Bernard (Scribner's: $15.95 ; 208 pp.) THE VEILED ONE

by Ruth Rendell (Pantheon: $17.95 ; 278 pp.) MEXICAN STANDOFF

by Bruce Cook (Watts: $16.95 ; 256 pp.) THE BIG NOWHERE

by James Ellroy (Mysterious Press: $00.00 ; 000 pp.) A TWIST OF THE KNIFE

by Stephen Solomita (G. W. Putnam's Sons: $17.95 ; 288 pp.) THE SINGING DETECTIVE

by Dennis Potter (Vintage/Random House: $6.95; paper; 256 pp.)

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