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Bloody Sunday

November 12, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Gerald Petievich is a longtime Secret Service agent who has written about law enforcement from the inside, perhaps most famously in "To Live and Die in L.A." In his new book, Earth Angels (New American Library: $17.95; 248 pp.), Petievich pits a kind of commando unit from the LAPD against an East L.A. gang.

The principal antagonists are Jose Stepanovich, a detective-sergeant who heads the small squad, and Payaso Estrada, a member of the White Fence gang, wounded in a drive-by shooting at a wedding.

You have the feeling that Petievich has it all absolutely right, including the frustrations that lead good cops to step just outside the law to get results, and on the other side, the frustrations and the feeling of isolation from the larger community that sustain the gangs as a way of life.

There are elements as well of political cynicism and betrayal, and the torn loyalties where the Anglo and Latino worlds rub together. It's a bloody book, and a bloody good one, a holding narrative that also has the force of further revelation about a milieu you'd have said you knew from the newscasts.

Robert Crais, a Los Angeles television story editor and writer, won several honors with his first novel, "The Monkey's Raincoat," featuring private eye Elvis Cole. (It will date us all to learn that Cole was named for his mother's idol.)

In his second outing, Stalking the Angel (Bantam: $16.95; 240 pp.), Cole is asked to find an ancient and valuable Japanese manuscript on the samurai code of conduct. It has been stolen from a rich Los Angeles businessman who does a lot of trade with the Orient.

Cole, who is doing headstands in his office when first observed, is positioned almost midway between the wisecracking Spenser and the compassionate Lew Archer on the patented Private Eye Scale.

Honoring tradition, Crais' first-person narrative moves quickly along mean streets, some of which are in Little Tokyo and populated by visiting yakusa, the well-known Japanese gangsters. The businessman's dazed and neglected daughter is in this up to her tank top, and there is a climactic tableau of carnage up at Arrowhead.

Craig breaks no new ground but he does the familiar very well.

Steven Solomita is a former New York cab driver, which is a perfect way to get to know the mean streets, as he indicated in a first novel, "The Twist of the Knife," featuring a world-worn Manhattan detective named Stanley Moodrow. Moodrow is back in Force of Nature (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $17.95; 320 pp.), another wonderfully atmospheric and characterful novel.

Moodrow and a new partner are after a multiple killer whose identity is only too well known but who can't be found. He is a malevolently clever and psychopathic crack addict and dealer who calls himself Kubla Khan but is known to be Levander Greenwood.

Black villains are not common in crime fiction, and Solomita surrounds Greenwood with a sympathetic wife and children (whom Moodrow befriends and protects) to establish a balance. And, indeed, Solomita creates another balancing character, a soiled white cop who is one of Moodrow's colleagues. Killer and cop are products of circumstance, too hateful to be sympathetic but too comprehensible to be evil incarnate. Solomita knows his city and his people, and he writes with both muscle and sensitivity.

So does the veteran Lawrence Block, whose private eye Matthew Scudder last appeared in "When the Sacred Ginmill Closes" a couple of years ago. Scudder is back in Out on the Cutting Edge (William Morrow: $17.95; 260 pp.), trying to find a young woman from the Midwest who'd come to New York with aspirations to act and who has now disappeared from her rooming house.

What gives a particular savor to the new book is that Scudder, established in early works as a two-fisted, hollow-legged drinker, has nearly drunk himself to death and is now deeply involved in Alcoholics Anonymous.

So is Dave Robicheaux in James Lee Burke's books. It is a new sub-theme in crime fiction and a welcome change from the mandatory bottle of rotgut in the bottom drawer. As a fictional theme, the fight for sobriety creates an additional suspense: Can Scudder handle the crisis without lapsing or caving in?

An AA buddy seems to have hanged himself, thus propelling Scudder further into a plot that has a genuinely surprising, and affecting, denouement. Scudder has written about 37 novels and two short-story collections but shows no signs whatever of going stale: exactly the reverse.

The no-less-staggeringly prolific Ruth Rendell--about 33 novels under two names plus five collections of short stories, all since 1964--is back again with The Bridesmaid (Mysterious Press: $17.95; 259 pp.). It is another of her studies, tense and dark, of aberrational psychology, with the last horror, the terrible revelation, drawing nearer in a mixture of fear and fascination, like footsteps in the night.

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