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September 09, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The Prohibition wars of the '20s and '30s roar through Detroit again as rival gangs (one of them Purple) fight over the turf and almost nobody on either side of the law stays untainted and incorruptible. No Eliot Ness here. Loren D. Estleman's Whiskey River (Bantam: $17.97; 272 pp.) stirs together historical research and entirely believeable invention, with only a brief preface to suggest what really happened and what might have but didn't.

The rise and fall of a young hood named Jack Dance (ne Danzig) is chronicled by reporter/columnist Connie Minor, who in those days consorted with the mobsters, trading discretion for scoops and knowing which news wasn't fit, or safe, to print. He is looking back on the events from his present role as an advertising writer in a wet-again city.

From a gun battle at night on a frozen river as one gang tries to hijack another gang's caravan of touring cars sneaking illegal hooch in from Canada, to a final shoot-out when the music stops for Dance, Estleman's novel is a wizard piece of historical reconstruction, exciting as a gangster film but with a texturing of the characters and the times that rises well above genre. It is an exceptional piece of crime fiction.

Exceptional as well is Laurence Henderson's The Final Glass (Academy: $18.95; 299 pp.), a tensely credible look within the Provos--the Provisional Irish Republican Army--as a small knot of them plot their explosive protests in present London.

A bomb goes off on a double-decker bus trundling through the London night. It seems to have been purposeless, no evident target aboard and no apparent symbolic importance. The Yard commences its expert researches (the fragments identify the explosive as a brand the Provos have used before) and Henderson looks in on the local Provos, who are as confused as the police by the blast.

Like "Odd Man Out," Henderson's novel is a story of betrayal and corruption, reaching to the top of the organization. Increasingly, the story focuses on Maureen Driscoll, a university radical drawn to the IRA by what had seemed sufficiently idealistic reasons to her and her late husband, who presumably was gunned down by British troops during a bungled caper in Northern Ireland. She is in London as a kind of untrusted auxiliary to the male bombers.

The double-crossings are as intricate as anything in early Le Carre; the confrontations are hair-raising, and Driscoll's fate a matter of high suspense and concern. Henderson, a British author whose fifth novel this is, has a narrative flair both non-stop and highly polished.

Ruth Rendell continues to be improbably prolific and clever and, as always, appears to set herself ever trickier tasks, just so she can make them look easy. In Going Wrong (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 260 pp.), her target is a fairly obviously addled and dangerous young man who has lunch every Saturday with a young woman he has known since they were children.

He imagines she loves him (they were teen-age lovers, briefly). She doesn't, and is so aware of his unbalanced state that she's afraid not to keep their routine dates. In his obsession, whatever she does appears to him to confirm her love. Love is seldom quite this blind.

As writing, it is a high-wire act, and Rendell executes it wonderfully well, generating much the same suspense you might feel in the presence of a coiled snake. All hell is going to break loose, but just when, and exactly how? She even manages to be tartly funny, as in the confrontations between the suitor and the girl's contemptuous mother.

The denouement is sheathed in an irony that is saved for the very last page (by now a frequent Rendell trademark). Her vision is too dark for some readers, but no one is presently conducting more memorable tours de force than Rendell.

There can hardly be an American lawyer these days who is not writing a courtroom thriller on the side. It must be the Turow lure. One of the latest--and very good, too--is Paul Levine, a Miami trial lawyer specializing in First Amendment cases. To Speak for the Dead (Bantam: $17.95; 282 pp.) is his first novel, with a second to be published in the spring.

Lawyers write about lawyers and Levine's hero is Jake Lassiter, a trial lawyer who occasionally suggests Travis McGee with an LL.B. His client is a dashing young doctor being sued for malpractice in the death during surgery of an elderly patient, whose sexy young wife does not seem as grief-stricken as she might and who is afflicted with indiscriminate hots.

Lawyers also write about judges and courtrooms, and the appeal of both is large and evidently unquenchable. Levine gets out of the courthouse to do a spot of grave-robbing with a very cinematic retired coroner.

Irony also is perennially in vogue, and there is a hearty helping of it in the solution of Lassiter's case. After a shaky prologue, Levine finds his stride, and in the end, his debut novel is an assured and exciting piece of work.

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