Marcel Montecino's debut novel, "The Crosskiller," was a harsh, grittily atmospheric and hard-to-set-aside thriller. His second novel, Big Time (William Morrow: $19.95; 493 pp.), is no less harsh and violent and not a bit easier to set aside once you've entered upon Montecino's long, picaresque cat-and-rat chase. Even after nearly 500 pages fecund with character and event, the story seems not so much to have concluded as to have paused for breath.
Sal D'Amore is a New Orleans lounge pianist-songwriter-compulsive gambler, a self-made loser. As we meet him he is vamping until ready as bartender and transcriber of phone bets in a Family-owned saloon. He gets caught out betting wrong on a fixed race and has to go on the lam, remorselessly pursued all over the Western Hemisphere by killers who aim to settle the bet with a long goodby.
Montecino is with all else a funny writer with what you might call a specialty in violent farce. Sal's progress is a Saturday serial succession of hairsbreadth 'scapes, beatings, shootings, rescues and rebirths, usually attended by ladies of uncommon pliancy. Worse luck: He becomes a musical celebrity with his picture in Time and Newsweek, and thus the easier to locate. He also becomes a man deeply in love with the wrong woman.
All his couplings are explicit to a degree even now still not common in crime fiction, and readers who prefer the wink to biological precision are forewarned.
The author clearly has strong feelings for music, and Sal's thoughts about the piano and the making of songs are the nicest things about him. About the only nice things about him, in fact. Yet long before he is fished naked as a cod out of the sea for what may or may not be the last time, you are rooting for him for reasons that defy logic. It is a tribute to Montecino's ability to make this improbable rake's progress so visually and viscerally compelling.
Another gambler, obsessive but not compulsive, is William Murray's Shifty Lou Anderson, a professional sleight-of-hand magician when he isn't haunting Santa Anita or Del Mar. He is back again in The Getaway Blues (Bantam: $17.95; 218 pp.).
Languishing amid a shortage of both gigs and winners, Shifty becomes part-time chauffeur to an eccentric millionaire horse owner who is also designing an elaborate private mausoleum to receive him once he has bumped himself off, which he plans to do momentarily.
Complications arise in the lithe form of a beautiful woman his ex-wife says is the eccentric's own daughter. She isn't, but the eccentric--no longer quite so eager to bid the world adieu--doesn't care. There is a back story, dark and evil, as Shifty Lou discovers soon enough, although not before murder has been multiply done.
Handicapping races, Shifty says, is a kind of sleuthing. "Ferreting out secrets and solving puzzles is what I do at the race track," he says, "which is a great training ground for life." You might get an argument about that, but the strength of this likable series is Murray's affectionate familiarity with the tracks, the trainers and owners, the running of a races and above all the bettors whose hopes never quite die. In the new book, Murray's eccentric is an interesting creation, and so is a beautiful but luckless vegetarian lady.
Like Scott Turow, Jay Brandon is a practicing lawyer and a former assistant district attorney, his venue being San Antonio. Brandon's fourth novel, Fade the Heat (Pocket Books: $18.95; 342 pp.), bears very favorable comparison with "Presumed Innocent" in its intimate familiarity with the justice system, and in its depiction of a man of law for whom the law becomes an enemy.
Mark Blackwell is the new district attorney of San Antonio. His son, a computer whiz working late at night in his office, is entrapped in a rape charge. The ploy is to maneuver Blackwell into dismissing a case against a local crime boss.
The son is convicted anyway, and Blackwell is left to try to prove he was sent up on perjured testimony. Brandon's plotting is intricate and proceeds by crackingly dramatic scenes and some surprising turns. But beyond its excitements, the novel also is a sensitive portrait of a man in anguish over his son's fate and facing hard moral choices. The courtroom scenes, always sure-fire, are sure-fire once again. Steven Spielberg has optioned the book.
Freeze Frame (William Morrow: $18.95; 320 pp.) by Marjorie Dorner is an expertly suspenseful story about a young American scholar on sabbatical at Cambridge University. On a Sunday stroll she takes a snapshot that may show in the background a serial killer and the young woman who was to be his next victim. The killer knows, although Beth Conroy doesn't, what a damning truth the camera may hold, and he begins to stalk her.